Turtle war brewing in Manzanilla
Wednesday, June 20 2012
A turtle war seems to be brewing at Cocos Bay, Manzanilla between “turtle guardians” belonging to the Nariva Estate and the community versus “outsiders.”
Michael James, Manager of Nariva Estate reported that these outsiders, including unsavoury characters, have been trying to muscle in on their territory and exploit the labouring nesting leatherback turtles for financial gains. Some of these persons even claim to represent other community organisations. However, James supported by the group of turtle protectionists long dedicated to affording the nesting turtles an undisturbed habitat at this location are having none of that. Experiencing problems in the past two months with persons wanting to charge visitors, they are sending the message loud and clear that “eco-touts” are not welcomed there and visitors have never been charged to park and view turtles at the estate. The Manatee Conservation Trust, owners of the estate, have always stayed on a clear focus of conservation, research and preservation of the estate and surrounding natural areas.
Volunteering with the Trust as “turtle guardians” for close to 20 years, James and several of the patrollers as second and third generation employees of the estate, consider these turtles which have been around for over 100 years as part of their natural inheritance. James mentioned that over the years, efforts have intensified with support from the Forestry Division, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the police. “We are extremely grateful that police officers from the Manzanilla Station and surrounding stations are helping us nightly, so that parking and turtle-viewing can be restricted to one location,” he said. James continued, “Our concern every night is to protect the turtles from harm and ensure that they nest without disturbance.”
James said the Manatee Conservation Trust felt that to avoid bureaucratic procedures and to make turtle-viewing free to members of the wider community, the best management practice would be to identify only a portion of the beach for this purpose. This practice as monitored by the patrols favours the welfare of the turtles with as much as 80 percent of undisturbed beach area available for nesting.
Manzanilla “turtle guardians” are lamenting that the tourism dollars are luring communities away from their volunteerism and conservation focus and even donors are pumping more into entrepreneurial projects. When asked whether he attended the recent national sea turtle symposium, James replied, “I know Hyatt is on the sea-front but I am sure it doesn’t have any nesting site for turtles. This would have been more successful and practical if it was held in a turtle community. Having it at the Hyatt ignores the grass-root advocates who are the backbone of turtle conservation efforts in Trinidad and Tobago.” He wanted to emphasise that at Manzanilla, they are committed to turtle protection and “eco-touts” and even turtle-taggers are not welcome.
When contacted, a source from Forestry Division, also echoed similar sentiments about the much-touted turtle symposium. This official commented that it is Forestry Division who pioneered community involvement in turtle protection in the 1990s, building on the efforts of a handful of dedicated conservationists in the 1970s and its own efforts in the 1980s to advance turtle conservation. The source lamented that now there are so many others appearing on the scene, with hardly anything new to bring to the table, but are instead motivated by the financial rewards.
When contacted, with her views on this emerging situation at Manzanilla, Nadra Nathai-Gyan in her dual role as First Vice-President of the Manatee Conservation Trust and Conservation Adviser for the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, commented, “Manzanilla with its easy accessibility for over 8 km along the Cocal stretch is a challenge for the patrols. However, they are doing a good job and understand that protection and not eco-tourism is the priority.” Touching on the way forward, she continued, “Since turtles on the coastline are well protected and we are losing less to poaching, the greater threat at Manzanilla and at the other areas come from incidental and deliberate catch in fisheries and dead turtles washed ashore and already partly decomposed have been observed every year with missing flippers and entangled in parts of fishing nets.
Solutions must be found to mitigate this, whether they involve no fishing on the corridors or diverting funds from corporate sponsors to compensate fisher-folks in lieu of fishing.”
Nathai-Gyan also mentioned that while they have used pirogues in the past to monitor turtles offshore, a 58-foot yacht currently being outfitted by the Caribbean Animal Welfare Association (CAWA) with the capability to conduct marine studies will be made available to the Trust for research work on turtles in the waters of Trinidad and Tobago.