Africa: Sea turtles in Seychelles; A journey through time
Sea turtles and Seychellois have a long history that dates back over two centuries. Turtle meat was once considered a vital food source for sea travelers, and remained the star of many authentic Creole dishes for decades. Nothing ever went to waste; The carapaces were polished and crafted into jewelry and other trinkets. In fact, at some point, turtles were even bred in captivity at the iconic Long Pier in Victoria, where every Sunday morning a select few were slaughtered and sold for 20cts a pound.
With the continuous exploitation of turtles over time, it soon became apparent that the once bountiful resource was becoming a rare commodity. Not to completely lose turtle from the humble dinner table, in the early 20th Century a new legislation was introduced that specified minimum sizes for both green and hawksbill turtles that could be hunted. It also prohibited the taking of buried eggs, banned the use of torches for night-hunting, and restricted the hunting of turtles within 1,000 metres of the high water line. Needless to say, these partial measures were difficult to enforce and turtle stocks continued to decline.
In 1962, the regulations were revised and the concept of a closed season during which green turtles could not be taken was introduced. Later in 1968, the total ban on the hunting of green turtles was enforced, only to be lifted in 1976 to allow for an open season on males from March 1st to October 31st, timed to coincide with the peak of nesting activity, from June to August. However, the situation did not improve. A visit by a reputable biologist to the Outer Islands of Seychelles in 1973 demonstrated how dire the populations of turtles were. He described it as an “outright rape of a resource”. He also explained that closed seasons are very difficult to enforce for sea turtles.
Meat can be salted and shell can be stored for years if necessary, making it impossible to know during which month a turtle was killed. During historical periods when the laws protected only female turtles in Seychelles, typically male turtles were sent to Mahé while the females were consumed in the outer islands.
It was only in 1994, finally, that the Wild Animals (Turtles) Protection Regulations declared that no person may disturb, catch, injure, kill, sell, purchase or keep any turtle or turtle egg. It specified possession of turtle meat can carry a fine not exceeding SCR500,000/-, or render a wrong-doer liable to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, or to both a fine and a term of imprisonment.
Moreover, under that legislation, it became illegal for anyone to possess, sell or purchase turtle shell in any form without a special permit. Because the growth rates of turtles are slow, with maturity occurring between 30 to 35 years, recovery around Seychelles has taken decades. Although, at some iconic sites such as Cousin, Aride and Aldabra Atoll, an eight-fold increase of nesting turtles was observed over a 40-year period, showing great promise for the future. However, since the coming into force of these regulations, there do not appear to have been many successful prosecutions for turtle-related offences.
A new trend in turtle poaching is becoming apparent. With the current Heroin epidemic plaguing Seychelles, addicts are risking prison sentences and hefty fines by ruthlessly murdering these animals and selling the meat for next to nothing in order to get their daily drug fix. Fortunately, the Ministry of Environment is proposing to improve their monitoring of nesting sea turtles by installing cameras on specific beaches that are known nesting grounds. The Ministry is also placing a lot of emphasis on education by organizing talks in the schools, helping to drive home the importance of sea turtles and emphasizing the harm caused by plastic pollution in our oceans.
We are also seeing the kind gestures by some good local Samaritans; recently, a video emerged on social media of a young tour guide by the name of Robert Agnes, who altruistically rescued a turtle that was cruelly tied up in the bushes. Robert came across the distressed animal while conducting a tour with some tourists on La Digue Island. He acted quickly by freeing the turtle and guiding it back to the water.
Sea turtles are of crucial importance to our current tourism industry. The desire to witness wildlife in its natural state is most sought after by many tourists. Visitors to Seychelles love having the opportunity to observe these marine reptiles crawling ashore to nest; or emerging from the nest and heading towards the sea as baby turtles. Many have described an underwater encounter with a turtle as one of the greatest privileges granted to a diver. Tim Ecott, in his bestselling book titled ‘Neutral Buoyancy – Adventures in a Liquid World’, describes the experience as follows: “To quietly observe the animal feeding, crunching its way into a piece of coral growth, and then see it raise its head and stare back, is an emotional experience… To swim at a respectful distance from a turtle and match its pace without making it fearful is to fall in love, charmed by ancient eyes…”