Thursday, 18 December 2008

A sanctuary for the Hawksbill - Fiji Times Online

Sunday, September 21, 2008
IN the shadows behind the multi-million dollar beach, something priceless is taking place. It involves a special ritual where young visitors to Treasure Island Resort are given a chance to interact with nature.
Steps away from the fringes of the shoreline, this innovative program provides invaluable education to youngsters about the marine life that surrounds the resort especially the uphill battle that resort staff face in protecting the endangered hawksbill turtles.

A battle to protect turtle nests from poachers, neighbouring locals and predators that include domestic animals.
The nests have become a major draw card for the popular holiday venue resulting in eco-tourists and regular returnees visiting the island each year to marvel at the growing number of turtle hatchlings that are bred and released under the resort's conservation program.

"Last week we had 93 hatchlings. We kept 26 for breeding and because of a lack of space we had to release the rest," said Katrina Sefeti, the resident conservation guru.
The Hawksbill turtle is listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and the capture and trade of this marine reptile is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
This, however, has not stopped overseas poachers who cruise Fiji's tropical waters. Nor has it deterred locals who regard turtle eggs and meat as a delicacy.

The breeding population of Hawksbill turtles in Fiji is approximately 150 and the estimated adult population is between two to three thousand.

The island's approach to the turtles desperate plea for survival is unique in many ways.

"This year we decided to incorporate the turtle conservation program into the 'Kids Club'. It's our way of ensuring that the present and future generation understand the importance of safe-guarding these beautiful creatures before we lose them completely," Ms Sefeti stated.

Turtles have been in existence for hundreds of millions of years and while the conservation effort is focused on saving a dying breed of marine reptile, there is another, often overlooked factor to consider.

As the global turtle population decreases, coral reefs and sea grass beds become unbalanced and in effect marine ecosystems are affected.

It is now a proven fact that coastal communities that sought to create sustainable livelihoods through eco-tourism have collapsed as the turtle numbers in the area decreased.

"It will be a sad day for Fiji and the world if we don't increase our efforts to help the turtle population grow to sustainable numbers. Until this is achieved, I believe that the slaughter of turtles for any purpose should be criminalised," Ms Sefeti added.

The Treasure Island turtle sanctuary has been in operation for seven years now and is never short of visitors, from curious toddlers to nervous retirees, who quietly admire the amphibious reptiles as they glide through the water with grace and exuberance.

"Look but don't touch. That's our motto, we deter everyone from handling them because of the possibility of transferring disease and being out of the water stresses them out," Katrina emphasised.

In recent times the sanctuary has come under scrutiny from critics concerned about the 'inadequate' size of the enclosure.

But Sefeti, the environmentalist, is quick to point out that the least people could recognise and appreciate is the fact that they're being pro-active.

"Granted that the facility is not of international standards, at least we're doing something about a growing global problem, however small and inadequate it may be," she pointedly said.

"This sanctuary gives hundreds of Hawksbills a fighting chance they otherwise would never have."

Hawksbill hatchlings make easy prey as they begin their slow and cumbersome journey from their nests to the sea. Many become food for swooping sea birds and large crabs on land and an easy catch for big fish when they enter the water. The Treasure Island sanctuary could be likened to an incubator.

The turtles are kept in the pond for 18 months until they have a reached a significant enough size to fend for themselves. They are then tagged by the Fisheries Department and released.

"We are planning to make the pool bigger and deeper as soon as possible," Katrina said.

Having a deeper pond will give the turtles more room to move around and will also allow the staff to introduce 'live feeds'.

"This is done by releasing live fish into the pond as food. This will help the turtles learn important survival skills like hunting and catching their prey which they will need when they're released."

The hatchlings are collected from nests that are monitored by staff.

Female turtles journey to shore during the night, deposit their eggs before taking off back to sea before dawn breaks.
One of nature's miracles is that female turtles always journey back to their original birthplace to lay their eggs.

A sanctuary for the Hawksbill - Fiji Times Online

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