Scientists in struggle to keep green turtle off the menu.

By Tim Butcher at Cap Esterias

5 June 2004


Pity the green turtle. After hatching from eggs buried on the beaches of Ascension Island, the tiny percentage that survive slaughtering predators swim 1,600 miles to Africa only to be caught by fishermen and eaten in upmarket Gabon restaurants.

Pity also scientists such as Angela Formia who battle daily in the front line of conservation trying to persuade Cap Esterias and other west African fishing communities that there is more money to be made from turtle tourism than turtle cuisine.

This argument formed the centrepiece of a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature that said coastal economies can earn three times as much from showing off their turtles as they do from killing them.

But it is an argument that failed to win over a Cap Esterias fisherman who caught three mature "greens" this week, storing the wretched creatures in the bottom of an old boat on shore, helplessly waiting for their final journey.

"It breaks my heart to see them like this," said Dr Formia, an Italian sea turtle expert who studied at Cardiff University. The forlorn creatures lay almost motionless in the sticky equatorial heat, their distinctive green shells dried out by the sun, their eyes dimmed.

"It takes a green turtle 25 or 30 years to grow to this size and the journey they complete to get here from Ascension Island is amazing. But it can all be wasted in an instant.

"Since I started work in this area I have seen 800 like this, which is a huge number for a species categorised as endangered. But our work must carry on trying to convince locals."

On the sand around the boat were fragments of turtle carapace, evidence of recent butchering.

Dr Formia asked some men playing cards on an upturned boat if the fisherman who caught the three greens was around. At first they said he was at his house but after some discussion it emerged that he was not available.

Although the Gabon authorities rarely enforce the law prohibiting the capture of greens, fishermen do not like answering awkward questions about the illegal trade. A turtle can earn them as much as 50 when sold to restaurants in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, only 90 minutes drive away down a bumpy, potholed track. That is a fortune in a poor fishing community.

The greens also face another threat as their feeding grounds lie in the disputed Corisco Bay, claimed both by Gabon and its notoriously brutal neighbour, Equatorial Guinea. A unique combination of sea grass and algae attracts the greens here, one of only a handful of spots on the planet where they feed, and fishermen from both countries use special nets to catch them.

Dr Formia said they had actually increased their capture of greens because their fishing grounds have been ravaged by unregulated trawling by foreign vessels.

"For me the most interesting thing is that, unlike other species of sea turtle like the leatherback and the hawksbill, relatively little is known about the green turtle," she said.

"From genetic testing and satellite tracking we know that most of the greens here come from Ascension Island where they are born.

"But how they come here and what happens in the 20 or so years from birth to arriving here, is still relatively unknown. We do know that those born on Ascension will feed here then somehow head back to Ascension to breed on exactly the same beach."

The WWF assessment about turtle tourism revenues was based largely on case studies in the Caribbean where millions of pounds are paid by tourists to see female leatherbacks and other species at night as they drag themselves up beaches to lay hundreds of eggs in nests dug in the sand.

Sadly on the coast of Gabon the three hapless greens showed that significant progress has yet to be made before eco-tourism saves their successors from the pot.