Endangered Sea Turtles Butchered on the Beaches of Tobago

BLACK ROCK, Tobago, May 23, 2001 (ENS) - Conflicting laws governing the protection of critically endangered sea turtles in Trinidad and Tobago have created a loophole that allows poachers to slaughter the giant turtles for their meat when they come up on island beaches to lay their eggs.

During the latest incident, poachers picked the wrong beach on which to kill a giant leatherback turtle. They butchered it May 14 on one of the three index beaches covered by the community conservation group Save our Sea Turtles Tobago as part of a research, education and protection program.

SOS Tobago executive director Wendy Herron awoke in the middle of the night in time to see the three poachers running up the beach carrying the leatherback's two front flippers. They had been startled while butchering the turtle and fled. Police responded to Herron's call, but did not capture the men.

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Carcass of the leatherback sea turtle left by poachers on Black Rock beach May 14. (Photos (c) Wendy Herron)
SOS Tobago patrols the nesting beaches in an attempt to stop the turtle poaching during nesting season from March through September. But Herron says another leatherback turtle was killed by poachers four nights earlier in the same area.

While police were not successful in catching the poachers on May 14, photos that Herron took of the butchered turtle grabbed the attention of the local media which publicized the incident, including burial of the giant turtle carcass by sympathetic villagers.

The publicity helped gather support for a petition being circulated by SOS Tobago. It asks the government of Trinidad and Tobago for stronger conservation laws to protect sea turtles on the nesting beaches and while in Trinidad and Tobago waters.

Despite various laws protecting the turtles from March 1 through September 30, this kind of atrocity still occurs, Herron says, regardless of the eco-tourism programs promoted by the government and by the tourist industry for Tobago.

The current Fisheries Act allows for hunting of these endangered species for five months of the year outside of 1,000 yards from shore. "This provides a loophole for the continued illegal slaughter on nesting beaches and inshore waters and sale of turtle meat," says Herron.

The petition asks the government to take immediate action to amend this law and ban hunting and the sale and possession of meat, eggs and other products of sea turtles in Trinidad and Tobago. "The environmental laws of Trinidad and Tobago need to reflect public interests and Government policies and international agreements," it states.

There is a Wildlife Act, a stronger law with regard to endangered turtles, but prosecutors would have to prove that the poached turtle meat was from an endangered turtle species. "Tobago has not the resources or motivation to make such a determination," Herron says.

Trinidad is the most southerly of a chain of islands stretching from Florida to Venezuela enclosing the Caribbean Sea. Tobago is situated 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the northeast of the more industrial and commercial island of Trinidad. Tobago is cool and green, with tropical rain forests and long sandy beaches, making it one of the Caribbean's prime eco-tourism destinations.

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Leatherback sea turtle found dead this month on a Tobago beach.
But pictures in the media of the bloody carcasses of endangered sea turtles do nothing to enhance the reputation of Tobago as an eco-tourist destination.

SOS Tobago did get a conviction three weeks ago. A perceptive tourist spied some men building a tempory access to another beach that is not patrolled by SOS and called the group's turtle hotline after discovering a dying leatherback on the shore.

Police and forestry officials were summoned by SOS, who accompanied them to the site. This turtle's brain was oozing out of a massive, head wound. It was decided to set a trap for the poachers.

Forestry officer Selwyn Davis and his team hid in the bush for most of the night. Early in the morning, two men came and began chopping up the turtle. Davis sprang up and made the arrest.

Due to the discrepancies in the laws or possibly what Herron calls "incestuous island politics," the two poachers were only fined for possession of eggs under the Fisheries Act, which carries a TT$1,000 (US$167) or three months in jail. The fine would have been much more severe under the Wildlife Act.

Herron comments, "I don't know if the police are confused or uneducated as to which law to invoke or since "turtle poaching" is not considered by them to be a serious crime, they make the arrest, and wink, charging the lowest fine. Turtle meat taken into evidence for stiffer penalties has been known to disappear."

The leatherback turtle population worldwide is shrinking quickly. In 1995, a research team from University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Purdue estimated the number of leatherbacks nesting on 28 beaches throughout the world from the literature and from communications with investigators studying those beaches. Their study was published in "Chelonian Conservation and Biology, International Journal of Turtle and Tortoise Research" in October 1996.

The researchers estimated the worldwide population of leatherbacks to be about 34,500 females on these beaches with a lower limit of about 26,200 and an upper limit of about 42,900.

This is less than one third the 1980 estimate of 115,000. Leatherbacks are rare in the Indian Ocean and in very low numbers in the western Pacific Ocean the researchers said. The largest population is in the western Atlantic.

This nesting season, an increase in leatherback turtles has been noticed on the beaches of Trinidad, 20 miles away. But conservationists in Tobago still fear for the safety of the species.

"If Tobago could only realize what a valuable natural asset it has in terms of sustainable tourism," she says, "perhaps they'd be more united in the efforts to save magnificent turtle."