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Saving Congo’s sea turtles: progress made but dangers ahead

Saving Congo’s sea turtles: progress made but dangers ahead

Democratic Republic of Congo’s 76,000-hectare Mangrove Marine Park is home to an aggressive turtle conservation project whose leaders are determined to make a safe place for mother turtles to lay their eggs.

  • Among the myriad threats facing turtles globally, coastal development has deprived females of the isolated, dry, sandy beaches they need to build nests for their eggs.
  • Until recently, homecoming was a death-trap for turtles as poor local communities took advantage of an immobile source of food appearing annually on their beaches and in their coastal waters.
  • The Congo’s 23-mile stretch of beach is home to a turtle conservation project that aims to give turtles born into the wild a fighting chance.

Muanda, Democratic Republic of Congo – “We used to eat all the turtles,” Matondo Nkenghe José explains about local activity along the Democratic Republic of Congo’s tiny 23-mile coast. “People would come here to the beach to catch them and it wasn’t stealing, it wasn’t poaching, because the law didn’t exist.”

The truth is that even Nkenghe José— who today runs patrols for a groundbreaking turtle conservation project — doesn’t seem to realize that killing turtles has in fact been illegal in the area since 1992. That’s when the 76,000-hectare (187,800 acres) Mangrove Marine Park was established as a protected area by the government. Part of the lack of awareness is surely linked to money: Congo’s government is perennially cash-strapped and defending wildlife is not a budgetary priority. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the country’s national parks and nature reserves are left largely defenseless, despite laws on the books.

Here on the Congolese coast, however, the park’s management is now determinedly applying the existing legislation and making life considerably less dangerous for female turtles in search of a safe place to lay their eggs.

Sea turtles have lived in our oceans for more than 100 million years but modernity has brought an unprecedented array of threats. Each year around the world, hundreds of thousands of turtles drown in fishing nets, are poached for their meat and eggs, or are poisoned by plastic and other detritus. Coastal development and rising sea levels have deprived females of the isolated, dry, sandy beaches they need to build nests for their eggs. Even in the best conditions, hatchlings and juveniles have an extremely high mortality rate. Estimates are that as few as one in 1,000 to one in 10,000 will live the several decades it takes to reach maturity and human behaviour can worsen the already slim odds.

A man with a bag of turtle eggs that were protected until hatching at Mangrove Marine Park. Photo courtesy of Marcel Collet.
A scout with a bag of turtle eggs that were protected until hatching at Mangrove Marine Park. Photo courtesy of Marcel Collet.

All of this means that six of the seven species of sea turtles are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN’s red list of threatened species. The next category after critically endangered is extinct in the wild. The seventh species, the flatback (Natator depressus) is not categorized because it is listed as “data deficient.”

Despite traveling vast distances across the ocean, those sea turtles who survive choose to return to the beaches where they were born to produce their own offspring. Of those females making the arduous journey back to Congo, about 95 percent are olive ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea), which grow to about two feet, while the rest are leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea), the heaviest turtles in the world, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds.

New homecoming

Until recently, homecoming was a death-trap for turtles as poor local communities took advantage of an immobile source of food appearing annually on their beaches and in their coastal waters.

In 2012 the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), a government agency, appointed Marcel Collet, a Belgian who has lived in Congo his entire life, as the park’s director. Before moving to the coast he ran Garamba National Park situated near the lawless border with South Sudan. Collet and his under-resourced team have the mammoth responsibility of tackling poaching in a 20,000 hectare (49,400 acres) mangrove forest in the mouth of the Congo River and a 44,000 hectare (108,700 acres) expanse of savannah, as well as the 12,000 hectares (29,700 acres) of beach and ocean. All of the areas comprise the Mangrove Marine Park.

Collet decided straightaway to confront a population which had become habituated to killing turtles.

“They were supposed to protect turtles for the last 20 years,” Collet says. “But they didn’t have any funds or people who wanted to change things.”

The scale of the problem was considerable. During one mating season that ran from late 2011 to early 2012, a local NGO, Community Action for Development and Social Support (ACODES), registered that fishermen had hauled nearly 400 dead turtles into the harbor of coastal town Nsiamfumu. Some had been accidentally trapped in nets, but often, Collet explains, “The fisherman were just grabbing the males off the females while they were mating at the surface [of the water].”

The NGO’s figures didn’t even take into account those turtles snatched on the beaches while laying their eggs or caught by fishermen elsewhere. The culture of impunity he discovered upon taking over the park incensed the new director.

“I insisted that we must apply the law,” Collet says.

That has proven to be an uphill battle: turtle meat and eggs have long been among this coastal population’s staple foods and the park has had to overhaul centuries of ingrained behavior. There were also commercial considerations for a country suffering from devastating poverty. Accurate data is hard to come by in Congo but in recent years separate research by the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank has put the country’s unemployment rate among the economically active population at 43 percent and 73 percent respectively.

“A leatherback can weigh more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds),” says Nkenghe José, the head patrolman. “If a kilogram goes for 5,000 francs ($3.80), then you’re making a lot of money.”

The ICCN went at the problem head on: first they divvied up the Congo’s approximately 18 miles of beaches and split it into ten parts, allocating four scouts recruited from local villages to each segment.

Matondo Nkenghe José--who runs patrols for the park's turtle conservation project--rinses sand off newly hatched turtles on Tonde beach before shepherding them to the ocean. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.
Matondo Nkenghe José–who runs patrols for the park’s turtle conservation project–rinses sand off newly hatched turtles on Tonde beach before shepherding them to the ocean. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.

These crews are paid to carry out nocturnal patrols from October to March, when females turtles make the perilous visit to land. Exposed turtles are protected, their nests subsequently dug up and the eggs transferred to one of several purpose-built hatcheries dotted along the beaches and guarded 24 hours a day. Once they emerge from their shells, the baby turtles (up to 180 in an olive ridley nest) are shepherded into the breaking surf of the ocean.

Results so far have been impressive.

In the first season of the program, from 2012 to 2013, a team of only eight scouts recovered 20 nests totalling 2,235 eggs. In 2014 a full squad of 40 scouts was in place and by March 2015 they had rescued 228 nests and a total of nearly 28,000 eggs. The statistics were similar last year and Collet estimates that fewer than 20 turtles are now killed on the beaches or by fishermen each year.

“From 2012 to now we have freed into the ocean more than 60,000 baby turtles,” he says. They keep track of their progress through annual reports, though they are not currently published online.

A new approach

The ICCN’s strategy to date has involved substantially more carrot than stick, while the mere fear of punishment seems to be the preferred form of dissuasion. Typically, turtle poachers apprehended by Collet’s team are given court fines of around $300, a huge sum for most Congolese, and let go. A recent exception involved an attempt at legal action when for the first time they tried to secure a custodial sentence — one to ten years for hunting in a protected area — against a man who decapitated a leatherback.

Initially it went nowhere and the defendant was acquitted by the tribunal in Muanda, a coastal town of 70,000 people. However, the park took the case to the appeal court in Boma, 100 miles inland, and this month a judge sent the poacher to prison for five years.

Collet is delighted that on this occasion Congolese law enforcement was neither malleable nor predatory nor absent.

“The justice system is terrible,” he says. “When someone’s in trouble, the family just collects money and before now no one had gone to jail for poaching.”

Despite the unreliability of the local authorities, Collet thinks that the prospect of receiving a hefty financial penalty — whether a fine or a bribe — has become a more potent disincentive than his men surveilling the shoreline. He hopes the recent fate of the villager who beheaded the leatherback will further deter those tempted to violate the rules. Nowadays, he says, “It’s not so much our presence on the beach that stops people killing turtles.”

Marcel Collet poses with a turtle on the beach in Mangrove Marine Park in 2015. Photo courtesy of Mangrove Marine Park.

Among the park’s coastal communities there appears to be an acceptance of the new order.

“If someone finds a turtle, they must call the ICCN, which will come to take the eggs and put the turtle back in the water,” says Christian, a twenty-something who did not give his last name and is unemployed like much of the population.

However, the acquiescence is grudging and few hide their feelings that enforcement of the law has made their lives trickier.

“Life was already hard but now we’re forbidden to kill turtles,” says Martin Mkwambafouty, an aging fisherman. “After the ban, there was nothing new put in its place.”

Pierre Manene, an ICCN scout, sympathizes with these villages which have been here far longer than his employer. “We’ve discouraged the consumption of turtle meat through arrests and fines,” he says. “But it’s these communities who live in the park and have lived there since the time of their ancestors.”

Limited options

The lack of substitute activities is a real problem, the ICCN acknowledges, not just on the beaches but also throughout the rest of the park where communities are banned from making charcoal or hunting. As ever in Congo, it comes down to the issue of meager resources.

The park is run on a shoestring budget — between $100,000 and $150,000 annually — and the ICCN is only able to finance the salaries of some of its fulltime agents. Everything else must come from donors. In the last two years the ICCN has launched a formal community program with funds provided by the World Bank and managed by an NGO, but its impact so far has been limited.

Park rangers pose with an olive ridley turtle in Mangrove Marine Park in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marcel Collet.
Park rangers pose with an olive ridley turtle in Mangrove Marine Park in 2015. Photo courtesy of Marcel Collet.

Most pressing for Collet is simply securing enough money to maintain the Mangrove Marine Park turtle project. To cover a full five-month season costs about $70,000 and usually Collet has found sufficient financial support from public bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme and the private sector, most notably Dan Gertler, an Israeli mining tycoon billionaire and one of the largest investors in Congo.

According to Forbes, Gertler is worth $1.22 billion and has given $75,000 since the project’s inception. “We like the project … I have a weakness for nature and ecology,” said Pieter Deboutte, the president of the Gertler Family Foundation.

However, for the 2016/2017 season the turtle conservation scheme received only $20,000, of which three quarters came from Gertler.

“We do health, education, cultural and nature projects … We can’t do everything everywhere,” Deboutte says. Nonetheless, due to the lack of other donors Collet has had to downsize this year.

“We’ve had to cut the season to three months and put only 16 scouts rather than 40 on the beach,” Collet says. He is disappointed, conceding that nests will have been lost to the high tide and humans during the unpoliced two months during late 2016, but says the threadbare operation has still been effective. “We’ve collected nearly 130 nests this season so with less than a third of the money we’ve done at least half the work.”

A less-easily resolved, and perhaps terminal, complication is Congo’s sandy coastline and rising tides. Studies have warned that much of the current shoreline will be lost to the Atlantic Ocean during this century and colonial-era villas atop the fragile earthy cliffs seem fated to topple over the edge.

“It’s incredible how fast the tides have risen year on year since I arrived,” Collet says. He thinks all of Congo’s beaches are at risk of disappearing, which would be devastating for the turtles. “Maybe we could build artificial elevated beaches, which would cost a lot of money. Otherwise, the turtles will have to nest in another country.”

Banner image: Baby leatherback turtles at Marine Mangrove Park. Photo by William Clowes for Mongabay.