Yadua Island Journal: On a Fijian Island, Hunters Become Conservators of Endangered Turtles

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YADUA ISLAND, Fiji — Pita Qarau pulled his boat next to a turtle, which was trying desperately to flee the buzz of the boat’s noisy engine. The turtle, a female hawksbill, was surprisingly fast, capable of a top speed of about 15 miles per hour.

But Mr. Qarau knew he could win the sprint. He lost the turtle momentarily, then circled back. Finally, as the turtle slowed down, he positioned the boat near the fatigued animal. He threw his engine into neutral and dived into the water.

Seconds later, he re-emerged, holding on to a chaotic mess of flapping flippers.

Not long ago, a catch like this would have meant turtle for dinner, but Mr. Qarau would let this one go. He checked the turtle’s health, but he was unable to tag it, as he had intended, because he had run out of tags.

Fiji has imposed a moratorium on harvesting turtles, and while the ban has been observed inconsistently around the island nation, some people like Mr. Qarau have weaned themselves from eating turtle, which is considered a delicacy, and instead have dedicated themselves to conservation.

“The number of turtles were dropping and the size, you can’t see any big ones, only small,” he said later in the day. “That is why I change myself.”

Mr. Qarau, 53, a native of Yadua, a small, remote island in Fiji’s north, is a volunteer participating in a program by the World Wildlife Fund that has helped replenish the turtle population after decades of decline.

The skills for hunting turtles, passed down through the generations here, come in handy for tracking and protecting them from illegal harvesting. Monitors like Mr. Qarau are known in Fijian as “Dau ni Vonu,” or guardians of turtles.

Life in Yadua is simple and close-knit. The island’s only village, Denimanu, has about 200 people, almost entirely related by blood or marriage. Most residents’ income is from catching and selling fish. A hot shower is accomplished with a few cans of water left in the afternoon sun.

In Fiji, a South Pacific nation of more than 300 islands, local communities play a central role in managing their immediate waters. As a result, community-based programs that try to increase awareness of declining turtle stocks and to expand monitoring efforts “are those with the highest probability of success,” said Dr. Susanna Piovano, a senior lecturer at the School of Marine Studies at the University of the South Pacific.

Traditionally turtles were eaten at major events, like a wedding or a chief’s funeral. As traditions eroded in recent decades, some people began to think of turtles and their eggs as an everyday food to catch and sell.

Climate change and habitat loss have also placed pressure on the turtle population. The conservation status of the turtles common to Fiji’s waters — green, olive ridley, leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead — ranges from vulnerable to critically endangered, according to the Red List of Endangered Species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Fiji government imposed a temporary ban on turtle harvesting in 1995 to halt the decline. The current 10-year moratorium is scheduled to expire next year.

Still, the moratoriums have not stopped many communities from continuing to harvest turtles.

Yadua was one of them — at least until the island experienced something of a road-to-Damascus conversion. In 2010, two organizations — the World Wildlife Fund and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, an intergovernmental group — organized a workshop on the island. They presented a somber vision of the turtles’ potential extinction and discussed ways to prevent that.

It was there that Mr. Qarau realized future generations might never see or taste a turtle if harvesting continued. He said he was not thinking of himself when he decided to give up hunting turtles. “I am thinking about the future generations,” he said.

The island’s chief, Ratu Jone Cakautavatava, decided that Yadua’s residents should no longer consume turtles, and people began to wean themselves off what many considered a favorite food. “It was really hard to stop,’’ he said, “but I follow the law.’’

Mr. Cakautavatava described the old days of hunting turtles in a fiberglass boat and spearing them through the shell. Gesturing to the harpoon in his hand, Mr. Cakautavatava said, “I keep the spear until the government says, ‘Yes, we can kill turtles.’ ”

Mr. Qarau’s commitment to replenishing the turtle stock involves monitoring them twice a week. He walks the beaches searching for turtle tracks, which could indicate a nest. He and others are trained to dig into nests and record their contents: hatched eggs versus duds.

Counting turtles is best done at night when turtles sleep under the coral, he said, or during the day when they feed at high tide on a shallow reef. A minute into a monitoring round on recent morning, the shadowy shapes of six turtles jetted across a reef.

“You won’t see that sight anywhere else in Fiji,” said Laitia Tamata, a coastal fisheries officer for the World Wildlife Fund who manages the monitoring program. When the program began in Yadua in 2010, only six turtles nested on its beaches. Four years later there were 29 nests. At a monitoring site in Kavewa Island, no turtle nests were found in 2010; almost 70 were identified four years later.

Not every Fiji community shares Yadua’s commitment to conservation. Barry Hill, 27, a Yadua monitor, recently came across divers heading away from the island with two dead turtles in their boat. An argument turned into a brawl, he said.

“I tell them it is not allowed, but they can’t control themselves,” Mr. Hill said. “They want to eat turtles every day.”

Even though the ban was first imposed more than 20 years ago, it has been enforced only sporadically, and few, if any, violators have been fined or sent to prison, according to Kiji Vukikomoala, a lawyer at the Environmental Law Association.

“The general feeling is these are low-priority cases because the penalties are so low,” Ms. Vukikomoala said. Someone convicted of killing a turtle faces a maximum fine of about $240 and up to three months in jail.

The endorsement of a chief is often crucial to involving communities in conservation, said Michael Donoghue, an adviser on threatened and migratory species at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

“If communities don’t want to do it, it doesn’t matter what the law says,’’ Mr. Donoghue said. “Especially in remote areas, it is unlikely to happen.”

The World Wildlife Fund plans to press for an extension of the 10-year moratorium when it runs out next year.

Conservation efforts in Yadua and other islands have demonstrated that turtle populations can expand significantly if the moratorium is observed. But in 2014 the monitoring program ran out of financing, as the World Wildlife Fund put those funds toward saving species in greater danger of extinction.

And so, while participants used to get reimbursed for expenses like boat fuel and phone calls to report their data, now the monitors themselves have to absorb these expenses.

“I guess that is what makes it successful,’’ Mr. Tamata of the World Wildlife Fund said. “It is from the heart rather than for money.”

Mr. Qarau hopes that his conservation work will create a sustainable harvest, enabling Fijians to eat turtles again. He said he wanted future generations to see turtles and be able to taste them. “When they grow up,” he said, “they will see the number of turtles is still good in the village.”

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