Down but not out: Endangered hawksbill sea turtle is back in the fight

A baby hawksbill turtle moves from nest to sea.  CREDIT: Bridget Besaw
© A baby hawksbill turtle moves from nest to sea. CREDIT: Bridget Besaw

This story is only partly about turtles; it’s also about the indigenous owners of the Arnavons.

By Dr. Rick Hamilton, Senior Scientist for the Melanesia Program, The Nature Conservancy

In my line of work, I’ve acquired my fair share of stories. I am a marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy. I am also a father and a fisherman. I love to help people come-up with solutions to protect the places and resources that are important to them, and it keeps me working late into the night when these solutions are successful and I have a good story to tell. The story of the hawksbill sea turtle on the Arnavon Islands is one of them.

Today, the Arnavons are home to the South Pacific’s largest rookery for endangered hawksbill sea turtles — a population that very nearly went extinct. Our recent PLOS ONE paper indicates these turtles are, finally, recovering after 150 years of excessive exploitation - the only example of such a recovery in the region.

But this story is only partly about turtles; it’s just as much about the indigenous owners of the Arnavons, and how they put aside past differences and economic gain to protect the Arnavons rookery when it was down for the count.

The Arnavon Islands are nestled within the larger chain of the Solomon Islands archipelago just east of where I grew up in Papua New Guinea. The indigenous communities that have customary rights to the Arnavons have relied on their marine resources for millennium, fishing and hunting the surrounding tropical waters that provide food for their families.

© Local conservationists on the coast of the Arnavon Islands observe a tagged hawksbill sea turtle laying eggs on the beach. CREDIT: Bridget Besaw

Archeology indicates that the indigenous communities hunted the Arnavon hawksbill population for thousands of years without seriously impacting turtle populations. But contact with Western whalers in the 1840s resulted in hawksbill turtles rapidly becoming a valuable commodity, and the level of exploitation exploded. By the mid-1970s the hawksbill was threatened with extinction and the Solomon Islands’ government stepped in, declaring the Arnavons as a sanctuary.

This is when the trouble really began.

Three communities — Katupika, Kia and Wagina — claim hunting and fishing rights on these islands. These communities had no input on the sanctuary, and they were angry at the government for taking away an important resource from them. They felt they had no other way to be heard but to protest this ban, and they succeeded in pushing out the government after setting fire to the small government field station. For the next decade they continued hunting unabated.

Suddenly what was once a sanctuary for nesting hawksbills had become a mortuary. Over the next decade the population of hawksbills on the islands was virtually eliminated.

And then, in the early 1990s, The Nature Conservancy began working in the Solomon Islands.

The Conservancy’s goal was to prevent the extinction of the hawksbill by taking an inclusive approach. We spent four years facilitating meetings between community members and government, seeking a solution that involved all stakeholders and respected the traditional ownership rights of local communities.

© TNC is working with indigenous groups in the Solomon Islands to raise conservation awareness. CREDIT: Bridget Besaw

With cultural differences between the three communities and important marine resources growing more and more scarce, early community meetings were contentious, but eventually even those that opposed earlier conservation efforts came to realize that if they lost the hawksbill, they would lose everything that was important to them including their food, income and culture.

So in 1995, the Katupika, Kia and Wagina communities joined together to create the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area and at the same time, the national government imposed a national ban on the trade of sea turtle products. Community members help to monitor the islands and they help collect scientific data that shows us how many turtles are returning to the Arnavons to nest.

After 20 years, data shows that the number of hawksbill nests laid in the Arnavons has increased by 200 percent.

© Freshly hatched hawksbill sea turtles emerge from the sand. CREDIT: Bridget Besaw
The Arnavon turtles are not out of the woods yet, but thanks to the efforts of the Arnavon communities they are back in the fight. Stories like the Arnavons are fundamentally important to me. I have two young children and I often talk at primary schools about my work and why it inspires me. I need our children to know that everything is not lost. There’s still hope for the hawksbill.

Tags: Conservation | Endangered Species | Oceans | Turtles


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