Alarm Bells Ring for West Africa's Sea Turtles

BONN, Germany, August 7, 2001 (ENS) - The long beaches of southern Gabon hold the largest number of leatherback turtles in the world. Mauritania, with large areas of sea grass beds, is considered to have the most important feeding grounds for green turtles in West Africa.

But the survival of these and other sea turtle species is being threatened by the high numbers of turtles killed for food and trade and entangled in fishing gear, according to the first comprehensive report on sea turtles along the Atlantic coast of Africa.

Officials with the Convention on Migratory Species, which commissioned the report issued today, are calling for urgent international and regional efforts to conserve West Africa's sea turtles. The international treaty agency, which is linked to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is charged with conserving the world's migratory animals.


Sea turtles like this one migrate thousands of miles. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))
The report, "Biogeography and Conservation of Marine Turtles of the Atlantic Coast of Africa," was written and compiled by Jacques Fretey, an internationally known sea turtle researcher and expert of the French Committee of IUCN - The World Conservation Union.

The report reveals that a population of loggerhead turtles, which may be the largest in the Atlantic, has been discovered on Boa Vista, part of the Cape Verde group of islands.

Olive Ridley turtles, whose numbers are in sharp decline in South America, can be found nesting from Guinea-Bissau all the way to Angola, Fretey's report says.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP, says, "The report's findings should spur us all on to re-double efforts to protect sea turtles on Africa's Atlantic coast. In the Western Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, populations of sea turtles have been falling dramatically in recent years. This makes these findings in Western Africa doubly significant given its now undoubted status as a globally important region for sea turtle species."

Douglas Hykle, deputy executive secretary of the Convention on Migratory Species Secretariat, says, "Africa has been one of the last frontiers in marine turtle research and conservation. This report gives us our first, comprehensive, picture of how important the Atlantic coast is to sea turtles while underlining the real threats to the survival of the six species it surveys.


Dead sea turtle entangled in fishing line (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"It is clear that action at international, regional and national level is urgently needed if these extraordinary marine animals are to survive and thrive for future generations," Hykle said.

"Traditional subsistence use of sea turtles is permitted, but large numbers are being systematically slaughtered for meat and their eggs sold for food, beyond what is sustainable. Considerable numbers are dying after becoming entangled in fishing nets, said Hykle.

"Others are being killed for their shell, which is carved into ornaments or used for making tourist trinkets. Indeed there appears to be a trade in turtle shell both within and between some countries in the region, often in defiance of international trade laws on endangered species," the deputy executive secretary said.

"This phenomenon is not just limited to Africa. Marine turtles are highly migratory species. Satellite tracking and other evidence shows us that sea turtles found along the African Atlantic coast have come to feed or breed from as far away as South and North America," he said.


Cape Verde On Cape Verde's Boa Vista and Sal islands a reproductive stock of Loggerhead turtles has recently been discovered "that could prove to be one of the largest in the Atlantic." Luis Felipe Lopez, a researcher at the University of the Canaries, Las Palmas, said, "We have found that the population from Cape Verde is the third largest in the world after Oman's Massirah Island and the United States. In terms of the Atlantic it is the second largest, after the U.S. Our first estimate is that around 2,000 females can be found at Cape Verde with 70 percent at Boa Vista Island."


(Map courtesy USAID)
The report reveals that hunting of turtles here can be dated back possibly as far as 1479 when the French explorer Eustache de la Fosse reported that leprosy was treated locally by a diet of turtle meat and by rubbing the affected areas with turtle blood. Louis XI, who believed he was suffering from leprosy, dispatched his representative to the Cape Verde Islands to investigate after learning of the "cure."

Hunting continues today. One eye witness, was quoted in the report as saying, "Along 30 kilometers (20 miles) of sandy beaches more than 40 loggerheads were found, mostly heavily injured with bone and skull fractures, obviously by humans. Marine turtles are constantly slaughtered during egg-deposition."

Mauritania There are two important National Parks - Banc d'Arguin and Levrier's Bay. Banc d'Arguin's "marine zone includes an exceptional reserve of sea grasses making this one of the most significant West African feeding grounds for the Green turtle.

Guinea-Bissau The report says Guinea-Bissau is one of the richest areas in the whole region for marine turtles but adds, "Captures in the sea or on the ground as well as poaching of nests is threatening all age groups."

Ghana Ghana has 'highly structured" wildlife laws but needs to review their adequacy and enforcement in relation to sea turtles, the report says. "Many females are killed and nests are poached. Other threats to nests include domestic pigs, wild dogs and the theft of sand for construction," it adds.

Still, the report notes, guards have been trained to monitor nesting beaches and solutions are being sought to protect nests from predators.

Benin Green, olive ridley and leatherback turtles can be found nesting in Benin. The report raises concern that "systematic killing of females on land and poaching of nests" continues. "Commerce in turtle products is commonplace particularly the sale of shells to tourists." Leatherback fat is turned into an oil which reputedly has medicinal properties.

A turtle tagging project, supported by the Netherlands based foundation BIOTOPIC, may lead to the rapid establishment of a Benin National Action Plan.

Equatorial Guinea and Gabon The two countries share Corisco Bay which possesses exceptional sea grasses. Along with those found in Mauritania and Angola, these areas represent the region's key feeding grounds for the green turtle. Nesting beaches south of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea are of primary regional importance for the species too.

A transborder study and wildlife agreement between the two countries is needed to end the exploitation of green turtles by the local Benga people, the report suggests.

One eye-witness, is quoted in the report as saying, "The inhabitants of the Bay of Corisco have incorporated turtle hunting in their way of life for many generations. Recently, however, turtles have switched from being a source of subsistence protein for local consumption to being a highly quoted market product in great demand in the cities, especially Libreville and Bata. Although some turtles are captured incidentally in fine-mesh fishing nets, most are hunted with special nets, harpoons or underwater guns. There are approximately 50 fishermen around the Bay of Corisco dedicated exclusively to capturing sea turtles."

The report points out that Gabon's reproductive stock of leatherbacks is "the second largest in the world, if not the first." Yet, "Female leatherback turtles are systematically killed on the beaches and eggs stolen."

Money is needed for guards and international funds for monitoring of leatherback nesting sites is urgently required. Similar work should also be carried out for the green, olive ridley and hawksbill turtles in Gabon, Fretey advises.

Sao Tome and Principe The island of Sao Tome has the greatest diversity of sea turtles in the whole region with males, females and young green, olive ridley, hawksbill and leatherback turtles in its coastal waters. The same species also nest on its beaches.


Beach on the island of Sao Tome (Photo courtesy La Province Hotel and Restaurant)
The European Union funded Tato Project has helped reduce consumption of turtle meat and eggs, but is in need of longer term financing to remain viable, Fretey says. Substitute products are starting to replace turtle shell ones.

The report makes a series of recommendations to save and protect five of the six species studied on Africa's Atlantic coast.

Loggerhead Conservation priorities for the species should focus on nesting sites in Cape Verde and sub-adult turtles in the waters around the Azores, the Archipelago of Maderia, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde.

Green Green turtles grow and develop throughout the waters off Northwest Africa, Guinea and in the South-Central Atlantic Ocean. Special attention should be given to these areas which are often threatened by pollution from towns and cities.

Sea grass areas in Mauritania, Senegal and in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon's Corisco Bay need urgently mapping and monitoring to assess their health. "It is imperative that these internationally important feeding grounds be included in national and trans-border marine reserves."

Olive Ridley "Given the dramatic decline of Olive Ridley in the Western Atlantic, all African nesting sites should be considered to be priority areas with particular attention given to beaches in the Bijagos Archipelago, Sierra Leone, Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, southern Cameroon, Sao Tome, Bioko, Angola and possibly Gabon," the report suggests.

Hawksbill Tough new laws and better customs searches are needed in Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe to crack down on the turtle-shell craft industry. Countries which have not ratified the Convention on Migratory Species and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species are urged to do so.

"The top priority for conservation of the species is Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe where the species appears to nest regularly," says the report.

Leatherback "With the dramatic fall in populations of the species in the Pacific Ocean, one of the key priorities must obviously focus on Gabon and the Congo," Fretey says. The report recommends that a trans-border marine park joining Mayumba and Conkouati, staffed with anti-poaching teams, be established.