Thursday, February 26, 2009

Newspaper article – Seychelles Nation (23/01/09)

The following article “Turtle poaching on the increase” was recently featured in the local newspaper:

There has been an increase in turtle poaching since the beginning of the hawksbills’ breeding season last year, the Department of Environment’s conservation unit said yesterday.

The months of September to March are the time when hawksbill turtles come to lay their eggs on beaches, and conservationists say this is the time poachers wait for the vulnerable creatures. Although hawksbills are the main species caught, the department says green turtles are also being poached as they can be found all year round.

Gilberte Gendron, a marine ranger in the Department of Environment, says there have been more than 20 cases recorded of hawksbills being poached, especially in the south of Mahe. Although turtle meat is considered a delicacy locally, for the last 20 years there have been intensive campaigns to stop people from eating it as turtles are now protected in Seychelles.

Miss Gendron says there is an added danger that poachers are selling people hawksbill meat and passing it off as green turtle meat. Hawksbill meat can have serious and even deadly effects when eaten because of the food the turtle itself eats in the sea.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature says although the green turtle is considered to be endangered, the Hawksbill is at greater risk as it is on the critically endangered list. Miss Gendron says the department is taking steps to stop turtle poachers, but it is difficult as they continually change their tactics. Poachers are now using spear fishing to catch the turtles while they are still at sea, as well as killing them under cover of darkness.

Anonyme Island is one of the hiding places poachers are now using when discarding the shells of turtles they catch. Since the island – which has a few chalets – currently has no tourists, it provides poachers with the perfect secluded place to carry out their illegal activities. Two weeks ago nine shells were found on the far side of the island in a sheltered area.

Miss Gendron says this followed a call on December 30 from a young man who carries out a regular rat-baiting exercise on the island. “He described a gruesome scene of turtle eggs covered in blood floating around an area of Anonyme Island, which we went to investigate,” she said.

The manager of Anonyme, Vivian Vidot, says it looks as though it has taken the poachers some years to collect the number of empty turtle shells found there.
“In addition to the nine found together, there were also two more that looked like they had been there for a while,” he said.

Gilberte Gendron examines the remains found on Anonyme island

When Seychelles Nation spoke to the environment officers yesterday, they had just received a call reporting two more fresh turtle shells found in the south of Mahe. Miss Gendron says they are now closely monitoring the poachers as they know who they are. “We know who is poaching, all we need now is concrete evidence to take those people to court and make them pay for their crimes,” she said.

To help catch the culprits red-handed with the evidence needed to convict them, the Department of Environment is urging members of the public to call its green line – 722111 – to report any incidents.

“We have caught and successfully prosecuted poachers in the past using information we got on the green line,” said Lena Desaubin, a director in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Transport.

“Calling the line is strictly confidential and no records are kept of the people who give us a call,” she added. The department says it has recently taken a poacher to court after seizing his boat. And Miss Gendron stressed: “We do urge people to call us on the green line so we can catch the poachers and successfully prosecute them.”

New recruit for 2009

Meet Casper, the newest recruit in the MCSS turtle monitoring team. Casper, a.k.a “road kill”, was rescued from the road side by Elke, on her way to releasing turtle hatchling at Intendance beach.
Casper, a.k.a “road kill”, photo Elke Talma

A nest had been dug up by dogs last week on a neighbouring beach and as the eggs were due to hatch, were taken off the beach and incubated in Elke’s bathroom to save them from another dog attack.

The hatchlings started emerging on Tuesday and by Friday afternoon a total of 188 baby turtles were ready to concur the oceans. Five unfortunately, did not make it with 3 embryos dying in the egg and 2 showing no development (probably not fertilised).

Casper watched on with little interest as the hatchlings made their way down the beach. A crowd of over 30 tourist and residents had gathered on the beach to witness the event and Elke stayed on a good half hour after the last hatchling entered the water to answer questions.

An excited crowd gathers to watch hatchlings crawling to the sea, photo Elke Talma

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ancient turtle discovered on Skye

According to an article by James Morgan, a science reporter for BBC news, a new species of turtle may have been found which links land and water-based turtles. It has been named Eileanchelys waldmani, which translates as "the turtle from the island". The 164 million-year-old reptile fossils were found by a team from London's Natural History Museum and University College London (UCL) on a beach on the Scottish island of Skye, off the UK's west coast. The remains, which are being housed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, consist of 4 well-preserved turtle skeletons, and the remnants of at least two others.

The team uncovered four remarkably well preserved turtle skeletons

Why did turtles enter the water? “We have no idea. It's a mystery - like asking why cetaceans went back into the sea," said Jérémy Anquetin, of the department of palaeontology at the Natural History Museum. "Little by little, we are filling the gaps and now, we know for sure that there were aquatic turtles around 164 million years ago. Eileanchelys may represent the earliest known aquatic turtle and it is part of a new revision we are having about turtle evolution."

The fossilised turtle shell reveals the transition from land to sea

“This new species helps bridge a 65 million-year gap in the story between the terrestrial "basal" turtles, from the late Triassic, and the aquatic "crown-group" turtles of the late Jurassic. The former were "heavy-built" land-dwellers, with skulls which were "more reptilian", says Mr Anquetin. “The latter were lighter, and closer in appearance to the aquatic, freshwater turtles we know today”.

On the outside, E. waldmani would resemble a modern freshwater turtle. On the inside, however, there are small but very important differences in the cranial anatomy, making this turtle unique.

The Isle of Skye looked very different 164 million years ago

When these turtles were alive in the Middle Jurassic, the land mass on which they occurred was much further south, allowing them to bask in a warm, sub-tropical climate ... very different from the rugged, wind-battered coastlines of modern day Skye. They probably lived in a landscape of shallow lagoons and freshwater lakes together with other aquatic species, such as sharks and salamanders, whose fossils were found alongside E. waldmani.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Four Season’s Resort keen to support turtle conservation in Seychelles

Early in January, the tourism police from Petite Anse on the west coat of Mahe, rescued a clutch of eggs that was being washed away following heavy rainfall. According to Officer Joubert Emmanual, the eggs were due to hatch shortly.

Four Season’s Resort of Seychelles, Petite Anse, Mahe. photo Elke Talma

After contacting MCSS Research Officer, arrangements were made for Tracy Kolodziej (Mathew’s mum) who lived nearby, to incubate the egg in a bucket on her veranda while we all waited to see if and when the eggs would hatch following their ordeal in the rain.

Sure enough, less than a week later 151 baby turtle emerged from a 151 ping pong ball sized eggs. As the eggs had been collected on Petite Anse, it was decided that they should be released from that beach making them the first official guests of the soon to be completed Four Season Resort of Seychelles.

They were welcomed by General Manager Markus Iseli, while a number of construction workers and various staff from the Resort looked on in amazement. Mathew was also in attendance.

Mathew bonding with his first hawksbill hatchling, photo Donn Du Preez

While turtles are known to nest on Petite Anse, monitoring by MCSS during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 nestings season and again in 2008-09 by the tourism police in collaboration with MCSS, indicated that only 1 to 2 nests were being laid per season most likely by 2 turtles nesting in alternate seasons. Data from 1984, however, suggested there were as many as 5 to 10 nesting females at this site. Over the years, the nesting population on this beach may have been killed off for meat by locals until the Turtle Act came into being in 1994. By then, it was too late, with only a few turtles loyal to Petite Anse remaining.

As turtles take a long time to mature, there is still hope that the beach can be rehabilitated in time to welcome the hatchlings survivors (now mature adults) from the 1980’s and who knows, maybe with a lot of hard work and a dedicated long term monitoring and conservation programme MCSS and Four Season Resort of Seychelles can work together to add another viable nesting site to the currently dwindling turtle populations of Seychelles.

Hatchling # 151 making its way into the wide open ocean, photo Donn Du Preez

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Educating our kids may be our only hope

The best turtle encounters are those when you are all alone on beach, the turtle had picked a shaded spot and there are no poachers in boats on the horizon.

Two out of 3 isn’t bad then, especially when you consider that the audience were a group of locals kids and a very keen South African couple and their daughter, who were staying at Anse Forbans Chalet, an MCSS turtle monitoring partners in the South of Mahe.

On the 24th December, a turtle had been seen emerging on Anse Marie Louise by Andrew and Kirsten Legg (the South couple). They reported it to a local fishermen, who called Marcel and Elke to the scene.

While the MCSS turtle team watched on, the tourist went back to chalets to fetch their camera and came back with a horde of children in tow. These include their daughter Emma, and her new found Seychellois friends Connor and Imogen Howarth and Michelle Cebgewick. The group spent over an hour watching the nesting hawksbill turtle, diligently following the
turtle watchers code of conduct.

Connor staying as still as possible so as not to scare the turtle away, photo Elke Talma

Once the turtle began, laying, Elke and Marcel where able to give an impromptu lesson in turtle biology, ecology and conservation. The children had many questions, mostly directed at Marcel, who as a grandfather, had far more experience with inquisitive young minds.

Marcel holding court to his young entourage, photo Elke Talma

Following numerous turtle poaching incidents on neighbouring beaches, Elke and Marcel had been feeling a little depressed pre-turtle encounter, and had been discussing what could be done to discourage poaching both at sea and on the beaches. After an hour of talking to the kids and hearing their views on turtle conservation, it was reassuring to know that at least some Seychellois children are well informed about the plight of the turtles ... now if only we can keep the turtles alive long enough so that future generations can also share the same experience!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Illegal harvesting of Turtles

Not so long ago I wrote a post about the legal harvest of turtles in times past. Today I am writing about the present day illegal harvesting of turtles.

Anyone following this blog will know that I am the better half of Marcel, a dedicated MCSS turtle conservation officer. Over the years we have seen many turtles nesting on our beach but sad to say, we have been aware that some of the turtles that have come up the beaches to nest have not made it back to the sea. In order to deter such happenings, we have tried to put in a presence on not only the beach in front of our home, but on the more remote neighbouring beaches in the South, in the hope that a physical presence would be enough to dissuade any potential poachers.

Marcel, a dedicated turtle conservationist, photo Patricia Mathiot

Often we have wondered how on earth the poachers manage to transport their illegal booty from more out of the way places where it is unsafe to land a boat, and too difficult and too far to travel on foot. This was all made clear to us shortly before Christmas when Marcel thwarted an attempted poaching.

He likes to go fishing in the late afternoon, just for an hour or two. Apart from keeping the freezer well stocked it also gives him the opportunity to see if there are any turtle tracks on the more southerly and awkward to get to beaches.

He was doing a bit of trawling just off Capuchin beach, a little closer to shore than normal as the sea was very calm, when he heard the unmistakable sound of sand clattering against a turtle carapace. Although he was unable to see the turtle, there were fresh turtle tracks going up the beach and none coming back down. He decided to wait and watch the turtle make her way safely back into the sea.
Capuchin beach, the southern most beach on the South east coast of Mahe, photo Guy Blain.

A short while later, a turtle emerged from behind the beach crest and made her way, laboriously towards the sea. There seemed to be something wrong with her, and then Marcel noticed that she was dragging something behind her. As she got nearer he saw that it was a buoy tied to her right front flipper with a length of cord. It really was slowing her down.

Once in the water she seemed to flounder somewhat and no matter how hard she tried she could not dive because of the buoy. Marcel moved the boat up close to her. He was horrified to find that the cord tethering her to the buoy was so tight he could not slip his knife under it to cut it and release her. Turning her flipper over, he saw that the cord was secured with a large fishhook. Worried now that the poor turtle could lose her flipper as the tight cord was biting into her flesh, he concentrated on releasing her giving little thought to the poachers who must be near at hand.

At last he was able to cut her loose and as she swam away, he looked around to see if anyone was nearby but because it had taken a while to rescue the turtle, the would-be poachers had plenty of time to move on.

Hawksbill turtle are quick and agile in the water, photo David Rowat

It would appear that this poor beast had been tethered to a buoy as she laid her eggs, for that is the only time she would have been still. Once she was back in the water it would have been easy for the poachers to collect her and pull her along behind the boat to where they could butcher her, away from prying eyes.

We had saved one turtle that day and in the process learnt another way in which poachers kill turtles on hard to get to beaches in Seychelles.

... thoughts from Patricia

Turtles following in the foot step of the dodo?

The other day a friend of mine overheard someone telling a group of tourists that Seychellois looked forward to Christmas because December was the one month of the year that they were allowed to harvest and eat turtles!!

How wrong can you be? Granted this time of the year you are more likely to get to see a turtle but that is because turtles travel sometimes hundreds of miles during the nesting season to Seychelles to lay their eggs, Carol being a prime example!

Green turtles nesting in Seychelles migrate from their feeding grounds in the Mozambique channel.

Some people argue that there are plenty of turtles. A man might say “I have seen 6 turtles in as many weeks come up this beach, surely if I was to take one it wouldn’t matter”. We know that only female turtles come onto the beach and they come once every two weeks for perhaps 4 or 5 times during the nesting season to lay their eggs. It would therefore be reasonable to assume if you saw a turtle come up the beach every week for 6 weeks what you are actually seeing is 2 turtles, not 6, coming up on alternate weeks to lay their eggs. If you kill one of them, you have reduced the present turtle population on that beach by 50%, take another turtle and they are ... all gone.

Bearing in mind the many hazards that befall a baby turtle in the nest, on the beach and in the sea, even if all the eggs from a single nesting female hatch out with the hatchlings successfully reaching the sea, only one or two might survive to maturity and make it back to that beach to lay their eggs. It would take about 25 to 30 years for that to happen but the big questions is, would the shaded sandy beach crest well above the high water mark still be there or would it, by then, have been developed into a sea wall or even a road.

I read somewhere that it was about 200 million years ago that the first turtle like creatures existed and that from this common ancestor, evolved all turtles and tortoises. Seventy five to 150 million years ago the first sea turtles put in an appearance, and 65 million years ago the turtles were much as we know them today but in great abundance. Only 20 million years ago, however, mankind came into existence and in just this last short century, we have brought the turtles to the brink of extinction!
Archelon, the largest pre-historic sea turtle, photo Black Hills institute of Geological Research

There are local and international laws now which protect the turtle. Here in the Seychelles, the law is clear, to be caught in possession of turtle meat could result in being fined SR 500,000 or having to serve a 2 year prison sentence.

You may think that now, when we can go to the super market and get steak, lamb, chicken or pork, no one needs to eat turtle meat. Well you’d be wrong.

Some people will eat it when they can, in spite of the law. Just a few weeks ago a friend of mine was an unwitting dinner guest where the special beef curry to her horror turned out to be green turtle meat! It would appear that we can’t win everyone over; there will always be those who do not want to know. I think our hope lies with the children, the next generation, so we must not give up trying to change these peoples mindset. Remember the Dodos? It’s too late for them, but hopefully it’s not yet too late for the turtle.

What do you think?

... thoughts from Patricia

Not fazed!

In October 2008, MCSS reported on a turtle poaching incident where the suspected turtle killers got away as there was no evidence to search or arrest them. The blog concluded with the hope that while they may have gotten away with murder that day, the effort that went into tracking the suspected poachers, would discourage them from trying again.

How wrong can you be!

On the 3rd of January 2009, the same boat and one assumes the same men, where involved in another poaching incident. A turtle was taken at sea of one of the nesting beaches in the South of Mahe while a resident watched helpless on the shore.

The incident was reported to MCSS who passed the information on to the police and Ministry of Environment, but by the time everyone was mobilised the poachers had already landed their catch and disappeared.

A week later the boat was once again sighted off a nesting beach in the South of Mahe. MCSS Research Officer, Elke Talma, was on the beach at the time with a turtle and watched with horror as the animal entered the water and headed straight towards the boat.

Turtles no longer safe from poachers once they get in the water, photo Elke Talma
Seeing an opportunity, the man in the boat jumped into the water with his snorkelling gear and headed towards the turtle. The lucky turtle managed to get away but the snorkeller continued to look for a good hour, before getting back on his boat with his partner in crime.

During that time, Elke had pretended to leave the beach and hid in some bushes, watching the men’s every move, daring them to harm one of her turtles. After an hour of watching them catch only octopus, it seems that they were behaving, and Elke had to decide whether she would spend the rest of the day in the bushes or finish of the morning beach patrols.

Two hours later, the beaches were done and Elke was back on the would-be poachers trail. They were further north and where still looking for octopus some 300m offshore from beach # 5. By 13:00, they had reached Intendance beach where they collected fish from 3 fish traps before moving on to Anse Takamaka. Here they had 2 fish traps to check before heading home.
Local fish traps used to catch herbivorous fish on sea grass beds, photo Jude Bijoux

Driving ahead of them, Elke was able to get to the overnight mooring site before them and found another bush to hide behind. She watched through binoculars, as they unloaded fish and octopus from their ice box, removed the boat engine – all the time surrounded by kids playing in the shallow water around them.

By 15:00, they were selling their catch and Elke had wasted a day playing detective with nothing to show for her effort. Throughout this whole adventure, Gilberte Gendron from the Ministry of Environment was kept informed, but as the men had not broken the law, no action could be taken. Elke had been hoping that another spot check, this time by the police, would at least keep them on their toes.
Artisanal fishing boats on mooring for the night, photo Elke Talma

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Turtle Flipper Tags Types used in Seychelles since 1973

The first turtle tags to be applied to turtle nesting in Seychelles were “cow ear tags” or Monel 49 tags. These were donated by Dr. Archie Carr of the University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida USA) to Dr. Tony Diamond, who spent 2 years on Cousin island tagging nesting Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) with support from International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP).

Since then, new versions have been developed with improved locking mechanisms and corrosion resistant alloys. Even plastic tags were used at one point.

The following is a list, courtesy of Dr Jeanne Mortimer, of the various types of Turtle flipper tags types used in Seychelles since 1973. These Include:

• Plastic Rototags

• Monel 49 “Cow Ear” Tags
• Monel 4 Tags

• Monel 681 “Hog Ear” Tags
• Aluminium Livestock Tags
• Inconel 681 Tags
• Australian Titanium Turtle Tags

The following tags are most commonly used in Seychelles today. These are purchased by the Seychelles Island Foundation and distributed to all organisations within Seychelles who carry out turtle monitoring programme with the approval of Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources
Images from "Turtle tags and tagging in Seychelles : a brief history" by Dr. Jeanne Mortimer