On Wednesday, we had more than a little excitement. I was on beach #2 doing a turtle patrol when I came across a set of fresh turtle tracks. Excited about the prospect of my first turtle encounter of the season, I followed the tracks up the beach, noted the abandoned body pit and followed the tracks back down the beach, only to realise something was terribly wrong.
Someone had abducted my turtle!! The tracks suggested that she had been flipped onto her shell after a small skirmish and dragged back towards the vegetation. The culprits, realising that they were near an inhabited area must have been concerned about being caught and after dragging her some 20m changed their plans. I assume they originally wanted drag her into the bushes before killing her. Their tracks showed that they then picked her up and carried her back down to the sea.
Busy writing my notes, it took me a while to see the empty boat moored some 100m offshore – then the panic set in. Oh my god! I am on the beach all alone and there are at least 2 men out there armed with a BIG, SHARP, KNIFE and weary of being caught with a dead/dying turtle! Lucky for me, I have memorised the cell-phone reception hot spots on all my beaches (which otherwise have poor coverage), so grabbing my mobile I called in the Army ... literally!
When the soldier from the nearby army camp arrived, I was hoping he would be armed with a gun, or maybe a knife, or at the very least a big stick. Obviously, I know nothing about military strategy as he felt quite safe carrying a pair of flip flops! Cautiously, I followed him over the rocks as we tried to locate the poachers, having assumed that they were hidden somewhere nearby, disembowelling my poor turtle.
Eventually we saw them, happily snorkelling around the bay looking for octopus. Unable to get to them, we admitted defeat and let them be. Or at least I wanted them to think so!
I called Gilberte Gendron from Ministry of Environment to tell her about the poachers, then tried to call Johan, the MCSS microlight pilot here for the Whale Shark Season (http://seychelles-whale-sharks.blogspot.com), hoping that he could fly over the boat and at the very least get the boat number so we could identify the owner, if not the poacher. However, Johan was already in the air and not answering his *#@$^ phone. What to do!
Anyway, to cut a long story short, Johan, who by now had landed the microlight, headed South to identify these poachers and help coordinate efforts to apprehend them. After some really low flybys, they were still unable to identify the occupants or record the boat number. By then, Gilberte was on site with Mr Michel Vely (technical Advisor to the Ministry of Environment), Danny Dine and a set pair of really fancy binoculars, and soon we had a name, from the Seychelles Fishing Authority, to go with the boat.
We spent the rest of the morning driving from one beach to the next, following the completely unconcerned men as they continued to search for octopus and fish. We had people posted on at least 4 beaches keeping a lookout for then, including a very confused receptionist from Banyan Tree Resort, 2 tourism police (each on a different beach) and a resident from beach #3. Trying to keep in touch with everyone, while still on the move, however, proved problematic.
None of us were empowered to arrest the men, my fuel was running low, my phone had died on me and as I had hiked more than 6km of beach already, I got tired of the chase and headed back to the MCSS office. The unconcerned attitude of the ‘poachers’ was worrying me – either they had dumped the turtle meat when they saw the Twin Otter circling or someone else had taken the turtle and they just happen to still be there when I got to the beach.
Mr. Vely, however, seemed unconcerned with his fuel bill and looked glad to be out of the office. He drove Gilberte and Danny around some more, before eventually they too admitted defeat after having lost the suspects. They decided to return to their office along the west coast, heading for Anse Golette, where the registered boat owner lived, and lo and behold they found the boat and men again!
The men were landing their catch of fish and octopus ... no turtle in sight but to hear Gilberte tell it, the man they were talking to seemed awfully nervous for someone with nothing to hide.
After reviewing the day’s events, we all concluded that it was an opportunistic poaching, that they had probably hidden the meat as soon as they got to shore but with no power to search or arrest, we had no case against them.
They may have gotten away with it that day, but after the effort that went into tracking them, they may think twice about trying again ... one can only hope!