Protecting Las Cuevas turtle-nesting site
Las Cuevas is regarded as one of the best beaches along the north coast of Trinidad accessible to the motoring public. Its picturesque view, serene atmosphere, gentle waves and sands give comfort to not only visitors but to impregnated marine species that make this beach the pick of the holiday season.
In recognition of this, the Wild Life section of the Forestry Division has set up a security/surveillance command centre to assist in the protection of this important beach. The centre is a place of operation where patrols can be launched instantaneously along this stretch of coastline.
The Las Cuevas site was chosen in order to facilitate quick response to any calls within the area, with a reach as far as Gran Tacaribe and Madamas. When the centre was started five years ago, officers had to rough it, but by the second year, they were able to construct a makeshift camp, after which they were fortunate to partner with the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) who provided it with tents, cots and some basic facilities.
It also got co-operation from a wide cadre of people, including police officers in both Maracas and Blanchisseuse areas and members of the Coast Guard and Regiment, some of whom are honorary game wardens. The Environmental Management Authority is also on board.
The leatherback marine turtle is one of the five marine turtles declared environmentally sensitive species that visit our shores. Las Cuevas is one of the nesting sites that hosts this species annually. Officers of the Forestry Division recognised the need for an official presence on the beach to monitor the numbers of families and other visitors who camp during the crucial nesting season.
In previous years, a rough total of 140 camps occupied spots along the beach.
When the centre was first set up on this beach, officers met people interfering with the turtles, flashing lights, some were even taking rides on the turtles. Some people were camping on the actual beach where the turtles made their way up to the high-tide line.
One year, a turtle reached in the middle of a camp where people were sleeping. They woke up to the turtle digging sand in their midst.
During those earlier years, camp fires were lit on the sand where turtles come up. This had the potential of causing injury to the turtles because when the turtles touched the hot firewood, they got burnt.
People also played music on the beach at high decibel levels, had bright lights shining across the beach and ran out with flash lights that shone in the eyes of the beaching turtles.
Over the past few years, the presence of the officers on the beach has made a great impact on the protection of our marine turtles. About 70 camps now occupy the beach during holiday periods, most of them being family camps. A lot of these campers are habitual campers, in that they have been camping at Las Cuevas over the last 25 to 30 years. They now have all their lights shaded so that there’s no reflection on the beach. You won’t see any campfires on the beach or hear loud music. All this has taken place because of the officers’ interaction with the people.
Another major problem that threatens this important nesting site is that campers want the convenience of driving to their spot despite the danger to the nests and hatchlings that might be surfacing at the same time and making their way to the ocean.
There are also lots of people with ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) and small buggies performing stunts in the sand, displacing and destroying nesting sites in the process.
The rate of survival for a nest of about 100 is just two out of that number. When vehicles compact the sand, it means that hatchlings will not be able to push their way out.
While this writer was visiting the centre, a four-wheel-drive vehicle was seen speeding across the beach. The driver then proceeded to try at least two different ways of parking right on top of a nesting site. The officers intercepted the vehicle and the driver was cautioned, as well as educated, as to the Environmental Management Authority Act #3 of 2000 that says it is a criminal offence for knowing or reckless endangerment.
Section 70 (2) reads: Any person who knowingly or recklessly undertakes or conspires to allow any activity in an “environmentally sensitive area” or with respect to an “environmentally sensitive species” designated under Section 41, which may have an adverse impact on the environment within such area or on such species, commits an offence and is liable on conviction on indictment to a fine of one hundred thousand dollars and imprisonment for two years.
Residents help conservation
The job of the wildlife officers present is to protect the wildlife of
Trinidad and Tobago. They do not
primarily prosecute people but advise and ensure that they do not
disturb an environmentally sensitive species, protecting it instead.
People who camp on the beach are actually partnering with the officers in implementing protection of the beach. Campers say that their presence on the beach also provides a level of security for them, and they feel safer and want them to stay.
Officers at the centre have embarked on a sensitisation drive among residents, who in turn have indicated their interest in becoming honorary game wardens. Residents have also formed a conservation group at the Las Cuevas Beach and have linked with the Turtle Village Trust and Nature Seekers.
Instead of the public having to travel from the western end of Trinidad to the east in Fishing Pond, Matura and Grand Riviere to view turtles, the Forestry Division hopes to establish an ecotourism and conservation venture for the residents in Las Cuevas.
When this is realised, then the centre can perhaps move to another location where it is needed.