Conserving the turtle
Fuelling the licence
By Nimashi Amaleeta
@ WS / 28Jan2006
Sri Lanka is a major breeding ground for marine turtles. Globally all seven species of turtle are endangered, and five of the seven species visit the shores of this island. It is a known fact, that in Sri Lanka, killing turtles for meat, and egg-poaching pose great threats to the survival of these species. Also, it is yet another-known fact, that such destructive practices are mostly employed by the communities residing in the coastal areas, which serve as regular breeding sites for the marine turtles. Turtles visit the coasts of Sri Lanka in large numbers. Particularly the South-Western coasts. Therefore, for communities in such areas, the abundance of turtles, inevitably serve as a quick and easy means of meeting the needs for subsistence. i.e., various products of the turtles for food and for sale.
However, since on the one hand turtles are already listed as endangered, conserving them is imperative. On the other hand, the greatest threats posed turtles are by the communities residing along the coastal belt. Hence it is apparent that the most practical approach to conserve the turtle species, would be to tackle threats posed to them by such communities.
The concept of Community Based Conservation is concerned with mobilizing communities in such a way that they are allowed to harvest goods and services from the ecosystems and the environment on a reasonable basis, while at the same time they are motivated to ensure the survival and perpetuation of the ecosystems and environments concerned. Phrased differently, conservation is espoused via the active participation of the community.
The Turtle Conservation Project at Rekawa, Galle was initiated as a CBC programme and continues to be so.
Mr. Tushan Kapurusingha, the project leader and the committee chairman of the TCP, explained its operation to me within a CBC framework.
In 1993, prompted by a request from the British charity ‘Care For The Wild’, the TCP was established as an NGO in Sri Lanka. Its pioneers include Tushan Kapurusingha,Rohan Coorey, along with a few foreign experts from Germany, America, England and South Africa. A’ its foremost step, the TCP surveyed the coastal areas of the island to identify important turtle breeding sites. Thereby they identified four sites, viz., Yala, Bundala, Kosgoda and Rekawa. Mr. Kapurusingha said that “Yala and Bundala, although not completely safe were more or less alright, for they were located within National Parks,and in Kosgoda there were hatcheries, but in Rekawa, matters were daunting. The turtles visited Rekawa in large numbers, and almost all the eggs they laid were poached! In addition to that turtles were killed for meat and also live ones were transported in large numbers to Jaffna for meat. In the 70’s the old resident folk claim to have counted as many as 40 turtles on the Rekawa beach in a single night, but now, Mr. Kapurusingha says, the highest number he counted in a single night was 13, and that was also in the early 90’s. hence, this prompted them to initiate the project in Rekawa.
Rekawa is a typical fishing village, with the majority of it being destitute and uneducated. In that vein, if the wrongdoers were prosecuted, imprisoned and fined, it would have only bungled their livelihoods, collapsed the structure of many families and created unrest among the members of the community. Therefore, with the long term goal bringing about conservation via the community, the TCP voluntary group approached them from a different facet. They intermingled with the community, slowly but continuously won over their trust and respect, whereby they slowly persuaded the community to dispense with the illicit practices and pattern after acceptable alternatives.
Initially, the TCP voluntary group appealed to the community by organizing English classes free of charge. This initiative was applauded by many in the community, for otherwise they would have to travel all the way from Tangalle to Rekawa for ‘English tuition’. “We catered for different target groups in different ways”, Mr. Kapurusingha said. “For instance”, he added sarcastically “we didn’t try to teach sophisticated spoken English and Grammar to the elderly folk residing on the beach. We taught them to how to identify a turtle and explain its biology and ecology in simple English. That in turn helped them to interact with the tourists and earn a living. We taught differently to the police force, to teachers, parents and students.” Further the voluntary group made available the opportunity of viewing movies like Jurassic Park, Lake Placid, animal documentaries and even Hindi Films via multimedia projectors. Even this act was applauded by many in the community. Also the TCP organized a montessori and took steps to pay the teacher. They put up a library and about 250 youngsters in Rekawa acquired its membership. The group also organized exhibitions, held public lectures and continuously disseminated knowledge on relevant topics. Meanwhile, they took steps to persuade those who were involved in illicit practices, to abandon them by emphasizing on their detrimental repercussions. Hence, once egg-poachers systematically turned to nest protectors, and they were paid for protecting the nests by the TCP. Along with the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, another sector was trained for the tourist guide licence. Now they serve as government qualified tourist guides.
The TCP received its first funding in 1995 from the NORAD. The money was allocated to three tasks. The first was to promote in-situ nest protection in the Rekawa beach and research on turtles. The research was done in collaboration with the Universities of Ruhuna and Peradeniya. The second task was to train 20 youths in environmental education over a period of six months. Subsequently, these youth were used to promote environmental education within the community and also to map the rural geography of the village, which in turn was important for designing projects. Such a typical map elaborately illustrated the locations of a variety of features including the localities of temples, schools, hospitals, the gender distribution, occupational distribution and even the localities of adequate and inadequate sewage systems. The third task was to conduct a series of lectures in schools dispersed along the coastal belt, in order to disseminate relevant knowledge and promote awareness within the community.
As for the propagation-phase of the project, Mr. Kapurusingha went on to explain the many fluctuations they experienced, “it wasn’t always easy to interact with the community. Many mishaps occurred due to their attitudes, differences in their levels of understanding and other vested interests. In one instance, there was a man who vehemently protested at paying the montesori teacher and insisted that we distribute that money among the beach folk instead. But in the long run, even his kid attended that particular preschool funded by the TCP.”
He showed me a photo of a man, all in smiles, holding a hatchling. “This man” he said, “had been poaching eggs all his life. That was his livelihood. And this was the first time he held a hatchling in his hands, after several decades.”
“Initially we didn’t have places to sleep” he went on. “We slept on the beaches and in cow sheds.” He explained the effort they had to pool in collectively in order to win over the community.
However, their painstaking effort did pay off. The majority of the people extended their support to conserve the turtles plus their niches. No longer were turtles killed or their eggs poached. None of the illicit hatcheries were permitted. The community established the move “Nature Friends of Rekawa”, a community based organization which is charged with conserving these vulnerable species. This organization consists of a research officer, environmental trainers and egg poachers turned conservationist. They, particularly the egg poachers, contribute not only through conservation and management but also through research; research via helping to tag, to weigh, to measure the length and breadth, etc. of the turtles.
In 2003, the community managed to gain a profit of one million rupees, solely through tourism. This money was employed to build a visitor centre, for other infrastructure, and to establish other avenues for new occupations like the aquarium trade, batik industry and even sweet-manufacturing.
The ability of the community to dispense with their illicit detrimental practices and attain self-sustainability via alternative avenue, is yet another facet of the Community Based Conservation strategy. Attaining self-sustainability, is needless to mention is quite a tedious process. This project was operating on a sustainable basis, until everything was turned topsy-turvy by the Tsunami.
“If our starting point was ‘A’ and the goal of reaching conservation of the species plus lf-sustainability ‘Z’, now we are somewhere in between. Before the Tsunami we were close to but now we have become more distant from Z, yet, we are recovering and going on. The community/has more or less its ability of self-sustaining. We have to depend on the funds to run the project. But come to think of it in this way- if the project were not there, they would slowly revert to their old habits due to the paucity of other alternatives. They would poach eggs and kill the turtles for meat. If one turtle laid about 200 eggs in a night and if about 5 turtles visited the beach for the same purpose, and if they were poached, we will virtually lose 1000 eggs in one night. And if the turtles were caught and killed, how many turtles will we be loosing? Alternatively-how large will that figure be on a per annum basis?” he implored.
The concept of motivating and mobilizing resident communities to conserve their surroundings is emerging as a powerful new trend, globally. After all, it is the community that harbours the ‘material’ or ‘fuel’ needed to run a conservation programme. This fuel includes the natural as well as the human resources. Empowering or rather licensing this fuel could be done by external factor or as a self-initiated move. In this case the TCP served as the external factor which motivated the community. However, the power or the licence to perpetuate the project on a long term basis, resides within the community. In this case, reaching self-sustainability became the community’s licence which enabled them to carry on. To maintain this seif-sustainability, they had to extract the fuel within the community itself.