Sea turtles of São Tomé: Selling what can’t be sold
Sea turtles have the dubious honor of being one of the few animals that rank high globally on both the charisma scale and the dinner menu. If it is true that in western countries sea turtles have amassed legions of fans, it is also true that for millennia, in coastal villages worldwide, they have been caught for the plate. At first, this practice was small scale and so mostly sustainable, at least until the last century with the start of commercial exploitation allied to international trade. This insatiable appetite quickly threw all sea turtle species into the threatened species list, with most countries progressively banning the take of sea turtles. Yet, as of 2013, there were still 42 countries where it was possible to legally capture sea turtles.
One of them was São Tomé and Príncipe, a tiny island country in West Africa. However, things changed in 2014 when the Santomean government completely banned all take of sea turtles. Yet, while laws can change with a strike of a pen, old habits die hard. In São Tomé there is a long tradition of eating sea turtle meat, particularly around special occasions, and so many people were less than inclined to follow the new law. With a long list of challenges to tend to, in one of the world’s poorest countries, the Santomean government did not have sea turtles near the top of its “to do” list. It was clear that the “stick” approach was not going to work. But what about the “carrot”? What if people voluntarily decided to stop eating sea turtle?
It was at this point that my path crossed with that of the Associação Tartarugas Marinhas (ATM; Association for Marine Turtles in English), an NGO that since 2012 has been working to protect the sea turtles of São Tomé. In 2015, I joined efforts with ATM’s talented and hard-working field team, Domingas Monteiro, Sara Vieira and Victor Jiménez, and together we started working on a pilot conservation marketing campaign to reduce the consumption of sea turtle meat.
Conservation marketing is a social science field which recognizes that conserving the Earth’s biodiversity is all about influencing the choices people around the world make every day. By ethically using marketing techniques to influence target audiences towards the adoption of more environmentally sustainable behaviors, conservation marketers hope to bring about meaningful, but voluntary, change.
We knew that to succeed we would have to simultaneously make sea turtle meat less attractive and harder to obtain. We decided thus to focus on the coastal communities closer to the larger nesting beaches in the country, as these communities are both consumers and key suppliers of the trade at the national level. After an intensive audience research effort, involving more than a thousand questionnaires and dozens of interviews, the result was the pilot campaign Mém Di Omali, (mother of the sea, in the local Forro dialect).
The goal of the campaign is to create an emotional bound between our audience and sea turtles by associating them with motherhood and framing them as family members. This association builds on the most visible stage of the sea turtles life cycle, when females come to the beach to lay eggs, and the importance given to family in a country where nearly 80% of people are Christian.
In terms of demand, we started by placing A1 posters across target coastal communities, always in places where people were known to congregate such as bus stops or bars. We then engaged the young men of these coastal communities (those most often involved in turtle poaching) by organizing a football tournament that shared the same name as the campaign, Mém Di Omali.
For this event, we were lucky to get endorsements from two football heavyweights: Rui Vitória and Gonçalo Guedes, respectively the manager and star youth player of Benfica, a Portuguese football team with millions of followers across the world and perhaps the most popular sports team in São Tomé.
On the supply side, we focused on the central market in the capital city, also called São Tomé, the central hub around which all turtle meat trade revolves. Most sellers rely in the network of public transportation made up of privately owned Toyota HiAce vans to reach the market. These are usually parked outside the market forming a hub that is vital to anyone coming or going to the capital. We targeted the drivers, through a series of bumper stickers with the message: “I don’t transport sea turtles”.
At the same time, we tried to national buzz around sea turtles and how they are perceived. We partnered with religious leaders and musicians to get the Mém Di Omali message out. At Christmas time, religious leaders from several denominations, passed on the message that eating sea turtle meat was not something to smile about anymore. In the musical realm, General João Seria, one of the most highly regarded musicians in São Tomé, created a song, entitled, you guessed it, Mém Di Omali, which has the particularity of being sang in the countries three local dialects (Forrô, Angolar e lunguyè). The video clip was aired several times on primetime national television, a widely accessible and respected information channel.
So is all of this effort working? It’s no doubt too soon to tell, but in 2018 we hope to collect more data to help us answer some of those hard questions. In the meantime, there are encouraging signs. Just two months back, the police raided the capital’s central market and confiscated sea turtle meat being held there for sale, in what was an unprecedented intervention. Could this signal a change in priorities? Only time will tell, but until then we will keep spreading the word about the “mother of the sea.”
Diogo Veríssimo is an SCB member and David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he works on the interface between human behavior and biodiversity conservation. Find more about Diogo’s research at www.diogoverissimo.com and follow him on Twitter @verissimodiogo.