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Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Majestic Turtles of Sao Tome and Principe

The mindsets are shifting on the remote island of Príncipe, where communities are joining the fight to protect sea turtles

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The Archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe is an important breeding place for five of the seven endangered species of sea turtles in the world- The Green Turtle,  Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, Leatherback and the Loggerhead.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

These five species not only play a crucial role in maintaining marine biodiversity in the Gulf of Guinea, but also attracts tourism on which the local economy depends. 

The critical nesting period

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During the period between November and February each year, hundreds of Olive Ridley, Green and Hawksbill turtles can be seen emerging from the blue ocean and heading furiously towards the idyllic beaches of São Tomé and Príncipe. Their single most mission: To dig nests and lay eggs.

For tourists and nature lovers, this is the ideal time to witness this enchanting egg laying spectacle. During March, the newly hatched babies can be seen instinctively racing towards the blue seas to catch the salty waves for their very first time.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj
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Scientists say that these turtles return to the same beach every three years. Sometimes, they  visit the same sites more than once in each season to lay eggs.  Turtles require quiet, clean and unhabited beaches to nest or else they can get disoriented.

Undisturbed beaches are becoming rare even in the desolate special islands of São Tomé and Principe. But the favourite traditional nesting or breeding grounds are  are Morro Peixe, Port Alegre  Bom Bom and Micolo.  The whole of Principe are good breeding grounds.

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But the question is, how many mother turtles survive to lay their eggs, how many eggs actually hatch and how many baby turtles make it to freedom. 

In the absence of accurate statistics, it is hard to estimate the turtle population over the years on these islands. In 2014, according to a rough census by scientists, more than 2000 turtles were counted as making their way to lay eggs. But there is no regular census which can keep track of incoming turtles year on year.

But what is true is that this animal has been traditionally exploited for human consumption in the archipelago since the 15th century. 

Though turtle populations suffered during Portuguese colonization, the turtle’s vestigial role in the cuisine of modern São Tome also played a part in their endangerment. Turtle meat may not be a staple, but its meat and eggs do tend to figure on the dining tables in Sao Tome and Principe. It is not uncommon that some people celebrate special occasions by cooking a stew called calulu that includes sea-turtle meat. 

Law banning trade and consumption

In Sao Tome, sea turtles have been considered an exotic food and jewels source. These threats have led to a decline of sea turtle population in the region, reaching critical levels. Until 2015, it was possible for the people of Sao Tome to buy and sell turtle meat in open markets, just as they would buy fish. In the same year, the government promulgated a law banning possession and trading of turtle meat. But poor implementation and oversight created no impact. However, now, the mindsets are shifting on the remote island of Príncipe, where communities are joining the fight to protect sea turtles.

Conservation efforts from the grassroots levels 

Fortunately, in the last decade or so, there have been many instruments of social change and other voices in Sao Tome that have focused on turtle conservation.

Programa Tatô,  an NGO,  has been successful in involving local communities in its conservation efforts. It has been able to raise the consciousness of the people about the reasons for the endangered status of these turtles. This realization of the coastal communities at the grassroots level has helped bring about change consumption behavior and curb the local market for turtle meat.

Photo Credit: Programa Tatô

Programa Tatô approached Seria, a famous popstar in Sao Tome, who obliged by belting out a turtle friendly song  “Mem di Omali,” or “Mother of the Sea”. He sang “My people, let the sea turtle live. She was born in São Tomé, traveled throughout the world and returned to lay her eggs in this country.” The song was broadcast across the island’s state-run TV and radio and somehow managed to touch a tender chord among the younger generation in Sao Tome. Seria actually managed to take the turtle off the dinner table.

FTP’s efforts to protect marine turtles in the island

Fundação Príncipe Trust – FPT, another NGO, has been supporting the government and communities to ensure that the culture and bio-diversity of Príncipe is protected.FPT’s conservation project ensured strict patrolling of the island’s seas, (by boat and on land);  controlling poaching; collecting nesting data, tagging females and recording their behavior. 

In the north of São Tomé, at Morro Peixe and Micolo, all nests are carefully moved from nesting sites to hatcheries as this is the only way to protect them.

Beach and sea rangers, who were previously turtle fisherman, are now paid to protect the turtles and not fish them.

FPT also initiated an environmental awareness campaign called Zero Capture to disseminate understanding of the species’ threats and conservation to all of the islands’ schools and fishing communities. 

Another concrete initiative was that the money received from tourists at the nesting beaches and the Turtle Museum was allocated to a community fund. The communities that best illustrated sustainable and responsible behaviour, were awarded funds to improve their fishing gear and fix their community water fountain etc. 

In Príncipe, beach rangers on Praia Grande are supported by the Príncipe Trust and half of the money that the tourists spend goes directly to the trust.

Through such an approach, the communities realized that they were benefiting directly from their actions to protect and conserve the turtles. 

Photo Credit: Fundação Príncipe Trust – FPT

Such efforts have spawned a new generation in Sao Tome, which understands the key role that sea turtles play in the ecosystem. More importantly, the young Sao Tomean understands that the turtle is more valuable when alive than dead. 

The conservation and protection of marine turtles is one of the Islands’ flagship examples of integrated community work to protect a species.

The size of the sea turtles’ population and the variety of species in Sao Tome and Principe, makes turtle-based tourism attractive for international tourists. This kind of ecotourism maybe a sustainable solution for the promotion of the tourist potential of these islands.

Also Read: Obo Natural Park: Sao Tome’s Biologically Diverse Ecosystem


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