Sea turtle poachers become their protectors
A Philippine initiative to protect sea turtles uses the experience of their former poachers. It is not only the turtles that benefit from the program.
Night visit to the beach
"Pawikan" is the name given by the inhabitants of the Philippine province of La Union to the endangered olive ridley sea turtles, whose females prefer the region's beaches as nesting sites. After successfully laying her eggs at night, this female has laboriously dragged herself back to the Lingayen Gulf. She is observed by Carlos Tamayo, head of the local sea turtle conservation initiative CURMA.
On the hunt
Equipped with a wooden stick, a bucket and a headlamp, Johnny Manlugay searches for sea turtle nests every night on the beaches of La Union. The 55-year-old can easily spot nesting sites, having been trained to track the animals and their eggs by his grandfather. In his youth, Manlugay's family traded or ate the eggs.
Sea turtles are endangered
But the animals, coveted for their eggs, meat and shells, are now under species protection. Due to hunting and the loss of natural habitats, almost all sea turtle species are considered endangered. For that reason, the conservation initiative has turned former poachers into allies.
Stealing eggs for a cause
Former poachers now fight to preserve the animals, by raising awareness and offering incentives. "We didn't know poaching was illegal and that we should not eat turtle eggs and meat," Manlugay told the Reuters news agency. When he finds a nest, he carefully transfers each egg into his pail, along with some sand from the turtle nests.
From market to hatchery
The rescued eggs will not make their way to a market, but to a hatchery run by the conservation program. There, Manlugay will receive four times what he might earn by selling them elsewhere. "We talked to the poachers, and it turned out that poaching was just another means for them to earn a living. They had no choice," explained operations director Carlos Tomayo.
Hatching from protected nests
Sea turtles lay, on average, 100 eggs to a nest. The number of nests ranges between 35 and 40 each season, which runs from October to February. Moving nests to hatcheries not only protects them from poachers, but also from environmental hazards, allowing baby turtles like this one to hatch safely.
A basin full of turtles
"Last season alone, for example, we had 75 nests and we released close to 9,000 hatchlings," Tamayo says, while taking a basin full of turtles to the beach to be released into the sea, accompanied by joyful spectators keen to watch the spectacle.
Waiting for release
In the tub, the newly hatched baby turtles wait impatiently for their instinctively predetermined march toward the sea. The females will one day try to return to this very beach to lay their eggs. The males, meanwhile, remain in the sea their entire lives.
Scurrying toward the sea
Tourists flock to the spectacle of the blue-gray hatchlings scurrying madly down the sloping beach to reach the water after they're released.
Locals benefit from species conservation
Former poacher Jessie Cabagbag, who grew up eating turtle meat and eggs, said the extra income from egg collection is a big help to his family, who live mainly from fishing. On La Union beach, he helps Carlos Tamayo tag mother turtles to monitor the animals' population.
New brood leaves the beach
The successful release of a new brood also makes the former poachers happy. "I am truly proud. Even our neighbors, they appreciate what I do, because it is not easy. I am happy that I get to contribute to the conservation of the 'pawikan'," said Cabagbag.
Chance of preservation
The egg collectors' growing awareness of the threat to the sea turtles offers a chance to preserve the ancient reptiles. But whether this baby turtle will return to its birth beach remains uncertain. Every year, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles die as they are unintentionally caught up in fishing nets.