Trouble in paradise: the race to protect Kenya’s turtles
Crystal clear blue waters reflecting a cloudless sky, white sandy beaches dotted with tall coconut trees towards the shoreline and incredibly friendly people. That’s the best way to describe my introduction to the town of Watamu on Kenya’s eastern coast. Countless boda bodas (the East African term for motorbike taxis) with barely anyone wearing a helmet and tuk tuks criss-cross one another up and down the straight but hectic Jacaranda Road, beeping and revving past one another amongst stall after stall selling various items, from flip flops to CocaCola.
Understandably, with its warm waters and paradisal views out into the Indian Ocean, Watamu is a draw for international tourists from far and wide. But despite this, it does not take long to notice that ‘trouble in paradise’ is rather fitting here. Many people are living in poverty and scattered throughout its sands is plastic (and lots of it).
Challenges aside, the place is still a wonder to behold, especially when one ventures south to the great mangrove forest of Mida Creek – where the sunset takes your breath away – and into the Watamu Marine National Park (WMNP). Whilst it is not quite on the scale of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it is impressive.
Octopus, large coral, parrot fish, and, if you’re lucky enough to see one (I was not), several species of wild sea turtles, including Green, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley turtles can all be found in these waters. Watamu, in contrast to many other areas along Kenya’s coast, is a haven for these ancient reptiles, where a positive attitude towards the animals amongst the local fishers has been fostered over time, keeping them safe from poachers. The organisation largely responsible for this has been Local Ocean Conservation (LOC). Located in the marine park, LOC operates a facility to rehabilitate rescued and injured sea turtles. Tours of the rehabilitation centre and marine hub are open to all visitors, under supervision, including an informative experience through an education walkway in gardens where décor is made from collected beach waste.
To date, LOC’s Nest Protection Programme has protected more than 1,200 nests and more than 100,600 hatchlings. At the end of July 2023, LOC celebrated the rescue of its 23,000th turtle from by-catch, in a week when four turtles came into the facility to have fibropapillomatosis tumours (a disease as unnerving as its name, that causes debilitating benign tumours to grow on the softer tissues of sea turtles) and fishhooks removed. During my visit in June 2023, I was lucky to meet a temporarily captive young Green sea turtle, Carl, that had been caught as by-catch. Luckily for him, he was due to be released back to the Indian Ocean by the team later that week.
LOC’s By-Catch campaign is ground-breaking and has been recognised by sea turtle biologists as ‘an anomaly’. The poaching of threatened sea turtles along Kenya’s coast has been rampant. In the WMNP however, fishers cooperate with LOC’s field officers by reporting turtle by-catch. During 2022, more than 500 fishers joined LOC’s community of supporters and are actively involved in its awareness programmes. This programme does not fight artisanal fishing; instead, it recognises fishers as a collective of advocates for sustainable fishing practices, changing their behaviour so that living sea turtles are valued more than dead ones.
“Two fishermen who used to live and fish in Watamu, both visited us on separate occasions in the last month. Both have moved to other parts of the Kenya coast. Independently [of one another], they commented that Watamu fisher folk see sea turtles as animals to be conserved not killed, thanks to the work of LOC - a very different scenario, they said to both the areas they now live in. Having this endorsement from our fisher community makes us incredibly proud but reminds us that there is still so much more we need to do.”
Nicky Parazzi, LOC Trustee
Ever-emerging threats continue to mean that there is always more work to be done. Tourism and trade demands are often considered above the protection of this special area, which has resulted in the destruction of special roosting and nesting sites for birds as well as turtle nesting sites. This has continued to be a challenge for LOC with modern travellers enjoying previously banned beach sunbeds and shops. Furthermore, despite the positivity, this build of momentum has been hit by recent poaching incidents, which indicate that the activity has begun to gain a foothold in Watamu itself. At least two turtles have been poached on its beaches during the last couple of months and LOC’s team, including its rangers, is working on a plan to tackle this emerging problem before the situation reaches levels comparable to other parts of Kenya’s coast.
A grant from ForRangers, raised by Ultra runners, was put to good use: covering the salaries of various rangers, including Nest Monitors and the Data and Research Coordinator, as well as the full salary of a Mangrove and Anti-Poaching Ranger; uniforms including reef shoes; a drone to aid data collection; and an extension of the onsite rangers’ accommodation. ForRangers’ investment in gear and official performance uniforms has improved the health and resilience of LOC’s rangers. By helping to fund crew salaries, ForRangers has helped LOC to sustain its life-saving operations, plan and budget campaigns more effectively, and be the first to respond to sea turtle emergencies.
The support provided thanks to the participants of the ForRangers Ultra will drive LOC’s enforcement and conservation efforts, strengthen its resolve, and make possible the successes that it achieves. Thank you.