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Manon van Vark reports:
"Spotting your first leatherback turtle is a magical experience"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 14:45 GMT
Tourism protects Surinam's turtles
baby leatherbacks Few turtle hatchlings will survive from a nest of hundreds

By BBC News Online's Manon van Vark

Conservationists in Surinam have come up with a new scheme to protect their dwindling population of giant leatherback turtles.

More than 50% of the world's population of leatherback turtles come to the beaches of this small former Dutch colony in South America to lay their eggs.

They head for Surinam's eastern border with French Guiana to lay their eggs - a windy, remote coastline, with both lush rainforest and swampy mangroves. The water is brackish - a mixture of sea water and the fresh water of the Marowijne River which forms the border between the two countries.

turtle digging nest It can take over an hour to dig the perfect nest
The female leatherback turtles come ashore at night, navigating using the light of the Moon and the stars.

They spend up to an hour digging a funnel-shaped hole with their flippers, in which they lay up to 100 eggs. For some it could be the first time in 20 years that they are on land.

Egg poaching

But their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years and they have been on the endangered species list since 1970.

The main reasons are commercial drift net fishing, the building of hotels on nesting beaches, and egg poaching. Turtle eggs are a delicacy in Surinam, and large numbers are taken every season.

Luc van Tienen and Jeroen Swinkels The Biotopic biologists gather data on turtle populations and monitor nesting sites
Luc van Tienen, a biologist with the research institute Biotopic, has witnessed the scale of the problem:

"Last week we went to a newly-formed beach which is getting very important for the turtles. In one day we counted about 200 nests, which is a lot for Suriname beaches. It was about 4 km long, and more than 60% had been poached. And we're talking about turtles who are nearly extinct."

The Surinamese Government is trying to stop this decline.

It has already suffered - with a ban of its shrimp exports to the United States - for failing to use turtle-excluding devices (TED's) on its shrimp nets. Now the Surinamese Foundation for Nature Preservation (STINASU) is trying a new approach.

They have built a lodge on a protected beach in the Galibi Nature Preserve to promote ecotourism.

leatherback tracks Leatherback turtle tracks have a distinct 'S' shape
The presence of tourists on the beach at nights helps deter poachers.

Healing the rift

But more importantly, tourism is helping heal the rift between the government and the Carib Amerindian community who have lived on this site for hundreds of years.

The problems started when STINASU imposed strict quotas on how many eggs the Caribs could collect per season, which had been their main source of income.

The village chief, Captain Ricardo Pane, says that their land rights were not recognised.

"The turtles and their nesting sites are officially protected, but we, the indigenous people, don't have the same guarantees that our existence here in Surinam will be protected too."

STINASU realised that to break the long tradition of egg collecting they had to offer economic alternatives.

Tourists who stay at the Warana Lodge on the beach are also brought to the village to see cultural shows and buy local souvenirs.

The younger Caribs especially see this as a good way to develop the village economically. They realise, however, that for the scheme to be sustainable the turtles must be protected.

New role for poachers

Biotopic and STINASU have held awareness campaigns in the village to teach people more about turtles. NGO programmes have enabled poachers and fishermen to borrow money to change jobs.

Today, the same Caribs who once poached turtle eggs are now protecting them.

Chief Ranger Gerard Kiba The Chief Ranger warns off an illegal fishing boat
Chief Ranger Gerard Kiba is happy that he's now helping the turtles, and feels sorry when he catches a poacher from his own community:

"I tell them you know this is a controlled area and you shouldn't be here - leave immediately."

The Caribs hope that through education they will gradually change the minds of those in their community who are still against STINASU's resort. Captain Pane understands the benefits it will bring the village, but remains cautious:

"The advantages will come slowly, but only if the tourism is guaranteed to be sustainable. If there's no continuity then we'll be the losers."
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See also:
27 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
Turtles in the soup
20 Jul 99 |  Sci/Tech
Long-distance turtles log a record
09 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Loneliest tortoise may find mate

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