On the picturesque South Pacific island of Moorea - the "pearl of the Pacific" - a special kind of hospital is helping sea turtles. They are hunted by well-organized poaching rings - and also eaten by locals.
It takes half an hour to travel by ferry from the South Pacific island of Tahiti to Moorea. From the sea, the small island with its steep slopes looks like a tropical version of the Norwegian archipelago of Lofoten. A population of 16,000 people live on Moorea, which means "yellow lizard" in Tahitian. And then, there are the tourists.
A sea turtle hospital, founded 2004 by the environmental organization Te Mana O Te Moana, can be found in the northwestern part of the island. The name means "spirit of the sea," 29-year-old French marine biologist Matthieu Petit clarified. The center's goal is to protect marine animals: "We take particular care of sick and injured sea turtles," Petit said.
The center, run by a non-governmental organization, works out of basic rooms located at a luxury hotel. Here, injured sea turtles are nursed back to health and released as soon as possible. The reasons for their injuries are many and varied, explained Petit. Humans are to blame for most, mainly from harpoons and fishing nets. The turtles are brought to Moorea from across French Polynesia, sometimes by tourists, police or fishermen.
The sea turtle hospital is now known nationally, Petit added proudly. Injured animals are even flown in and nursed back to health by the veterinarian staff. Hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback and green turtles are among the species brought in for care. The center's clinics are in a number of bungalows - like huts - right on the lagoon.
Despite veterinary care, many of these animals can no longer be helped. A large female sea turtle with injuries to its back and neck lies in front of us. "[The injuries] were probably caused by a harpoon," said Petit. The turtle is in a bad way, and may not survive the night. "We have disinfected the wounds and given her medication, but we cannot do any more at the moment."
And then, Matthieu Petit talks about the what he calls the big dilemma: Turtle meat is considered a delicacy in Polynesia. Older people especially believe in a spiritual effect of eating the meat.
"On the one hand, families are hunting the turtles because of cultural traditions, and the meat is only for personal consumption," Petit said. On the other hand, a very specialized form of poaching is taking its toll.
"Well-organized networks get to the nests and kill the turtles," Petit said. Up to 1,000 of the animals are killed each season, for around 30,000 kilograms of meat.
Saving the 'ambassadors of the sea'
Staff at the clinic have nothing against small-scale fishermen and their families who capture one or two turtles. "But we are opposed to large-scale poaching," Petit added.
Turtles are protected by the 1975 international CITES (Conventionon International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Agreement. Since 1990, transporting, keeping, collecting or selling their eggs has been prohibited under French Polynesian law, as is selling and catching sea turtles.
Today, environmental organizations such as Te Mana O Te Moana and the tourism industry work hand-in-hand. The group also raises awareness among young Polynesians on respecting sea life. Veterinarians, technicians and a teacher work alongside the marine biologist at the turtle clinic.
Together with the island's school board, the turtle hospital has developed a special training program that includes a small exhibition.
"People need to understand that sea turtles are a very old species that was living at the time of the dinosaurs," Petit said. "In a way, they are the ambassadors of the sea."