The Great Conservation Story of the Leatherback Turtle in Trinidad and Tobago: Collaboration, Community and Conservation
By Alana Jute, Research Officer
Institute of Marine Affairs
This is the second part of a three-part series on the Great Conservation of the Leatherback Turtle in Trinidad and Tobago.
It is 10 pm and the moonlight is beaming in the horizon and the waves are crashing onto the shores of the North East Coast of Trinidad. There in the distance, what looks like a rock in the water, is not a rock at all but an ancient gentle giant of the sea – a female leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)- slowly making her way up the beach to begin digging a hole to lay her eggs. As this majestic creature lays her eggs, I will continue the great conservation story about the leatherback turtle in Trinidad and Tobago. As mentioned in Part One of the Great Conservation Story, the history of the leatherback turtle is one of our greatest conservation stories which started in the 1960s with one of Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest clubs – the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalist Club (T&TFNC)- which will celebrate its 130 years anniversary in July 2021.
The year was 1963 and the Club received its first report about a leatherback turtle that was killed and poached for its meat and its carcass was thrown and fed to the sharks out at sea. Leatherback turtle eggs were also taken by poachers during the nesting season. This report motivated one of the Club’s members, the late Professor Peter Bacon, a former Senior Lecturer in the Zoology Department at The University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine, to organise some of the club members together with some of his UWI students to go to Matura Beach in 1964. With the help of villagers from Matura, they were able to finally see their first leatherback turtle making its way onto the beach to lay eggs.
In the following years, Professor Bacon and the club members started to patrol the beaches in the North East, collecting data on leatherback populations and their nesting times. They also collaborated with the Fisheries Division to collect data on turtles that were beached at the Toco and Mayaro Fishing Depots which, unfortunately, were offered for sale at various markets. This data had never been collected before and proved to be vital information in subsequent years.
During, the turtle nesting season of 1970, the Club embarked on a turtle tagging project with assistance from the University of Florida, which saw 330 leatherback turtles tagged within a ten-year period ending in 1980. The Club was able to collect data from Matura, Fishing Pond, Las Cuevas, Big Bay at Toco, Grande Riviere, Tacarib in Trinidad and Grafton Turtle Beach in Tobago. This motivated/led Professor Bacon to publish the very first academic paper on the leatherback turtles for Trinidad and Tobago entitled, “Studies of the Leatherback Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea (L.) in Trinidad, West Indies”
The T&TFNC, then having a great deal of data on the nesting numbers of the leatherback turtle on the North East Coast of Trinidad, decided to use this data to prepare a document in 1973 entitled “The Status of Sea Turtles in Trinidad and Tobago” for the Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries. The document contained recommendations that would amend the existing Turtle Conservation Laws to better protect the nesting turtles on our beaches. These recommendations, which contained informative articles and photographs depicting the slaughter of turtles on Matura Beach, helped to formulate policy and legislation and publicise the leatherback turtle conservation. This was an unforgettable achievement for the T&TFNC.
The great work that was initiated by the T&TFNC led by Professor Bacon inspired and influenced a number of young people within and outside the North East Coastal Communities. Several other persons at various government and non-government institutions started to conduct research on the leatherbacks and raised awareness on the importance of protecting this amazing marine reptile. Persons such as Ms. Molly Gaskin and Mrs. Karilyn Shephard well-known environmental activists and the founders of the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust (PaPWFT), a 53-year-old non-governmental organisation (NGO). Both ladies together with volunteers and members of the PaPWFT continued with the turtle patrols after the Club stopped patrolling in the 1980s.
In the early 1980s a lot more interest was garnered on sea turtles as researchers from The Institute of Marine Affairs, most notably Ms. Lori Lee Lum (now retired), conducted an impressive amount of research on the leatherback turtle from 1981 to 1983 at Matura Beach, where it was estimated at the time to have 30 leatherbacks nesting per year. Also, in 1983, Ms. Gaskin, a member of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (WIDECAST), designed and co-authored the first Sea-Turtle Recovery Plan of Trinidad and Tobago, and conducted regular weekly patrols for research, information and tagging purposes at Matura Beach. She also produced a comprehensive book on Sea Turtles. Additionally, The PaPWFT had discussions with the community and an audio-visual education programme with field trips were organized and carried out with secondary schools from Toco to Rampanalagas.
In 1984, Ms. Lori Lee Lum presented the first National Report for Trinidad and Tobago which was delivered a year earlier at a Symposium in Costa Rica. Simultaneously, that year, it was discovered that the turtle population had been declining for years on the North East Coast of the Island because of sand mining in their habitats, large scale turtle egg poaching and slaughtering of the turtles for their meat. Although, the Ministry of Agriculture managed to stop the sand mining, the game wardens attached to the Ministry were not equipped to protect the turtles from being poached. Ms. Nathai-Gyan, an Officer attached to the Wildlife Section of the Forestry Division at the time, published a report in 1984 titled, “Marine Turtle Management in Trinidad and Tobago with Specific Reference to the Leatherback Turtles”. This report highlighted the dangers that turtles faced and the difficulties that the wardens encountered while protecting them.
Following, the release of this report, Dr. Carol James, the then Head of the Wildlife Division at Forestry in 1990 engaged the communities in the Matura area in discussions about protecting the turtles. Dr. James recognised the seriousness of the problem they were facing and knew that they would have to collaborate with the community if they were to be successful in protecting the turtles. They held several meetings with the village elders, local council, youth groups, and the school groups. The process enlisted their support in the conservation effort and sought ways to demonstrate how the community could benefit from ecotourism. The Wildlife staff organised a nature guide training course for 11 young persons the graduates of whom formed what we know today as the Nature Seekers.
In an attempt, to conserve the leatherback turtles, the Government restricted access to Matura Beach and the nearby Fishing Pond during the months March to August with the introduction of special permits to access the beach in March 1990. In 1993 Dr. James and Mr Fourniller published “Marine Turtle Management in North East Trinidad – A Successful Community Based Approach Towards Endangered Species Conservation”.
As we begin to know the names of several persons who have played a significant role in protecting the great leatherback turtles, let us remember that change is possible once we are willing to be open-minded to learn. When we know better, we can do better.
Next week, look out for the third part of this Great Conservation of Turtles Story.