This Is the Only Place in the World Where an Endangered Sea Turtle Is Thriving

More than 20 years of conservation work in the South Pacific has contributed to a huge increase in nesting turtles on islands where they were once nearly wiped out.

(Photo: James R.D. Scott/Getty Images)

Apr 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

One of the historically worst places in the world for critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles has become the locus of the species’ greatest success story.

Just 20 years ago, the population of hawksbill turtles in the Arnavon Islands of the South Pacific was nearly wiped out, the result of nearly two centuries of exploitation. But a paper published on Wednesday in PLOS One reports that hawksbill turtles are now making twice as many nests there as they did two decades ago. More eggs are hatching, and more females are returning to nest multiple times.

The signs strongly suggest that the hawksbills of the Arnavons have begun to recover.

During the 19th century, the blood of hawksbill turtles routinely stained these beaches. Chiefs from New Georgia Island raided the Arnavons regularly and killed the turtles for their valuable shells. Then they traded the shells to whalers in exchange for iron, which they forged into tomahawks for use in headhunting assaults against other groups in the Solomon Islands.

The turtles were further decimated in the 20th century, first by British colonialists, then by subsistence hunters who were resettled to the previously unpopulated islands. Government-led initiatives in the 1970s to save the hawksbill turtle faced active resistance because traditional owners were not consulted.

The current nesting boom stems from the establishment of the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area in 1995, said Richard Hamilton, interim director of the Nature Conservancy’s Melanesia Program and the lead author of the paper. ACMCA taps conservation managers from each of the three local communities— Kia, Katapika, and Wagin—and makes them a part of the process of protecting the sea turtles.

“They spend a month on the Arnavons and then get replaced by other conservation officers for a month,” Hamilton said.

The officers spend most of their time on the largest island, Sikopo, monitoring a 5,000-meter-long nesting beach for hawksbill turtles. “If they encounter one, they record the number of eggs laid and check to see if the turtle has previously been tagged,” Hamilton said. Titanium tags attached to the turtles’ flippers let the team monitor how many nesting mothers return to the beach.

The officers protect nests from predators by covering them with chicken wire, as well as moving any nests that have been laid below the high-tide line. “That’s quite a technical process because you need to make sure the eggs are at the same orientation they were laid in when you take them out,” Hamilton said, because any eggs that shift position during the move may not hatch.

The conservation officers also watch out for turtle poachers. Any incidents get reported to the police. The higher return rates of nesting females reported in the new paper suggest that such hunting pressures have lessened over the past 20 years.

Once a week, the officers travel to the outlying islands, where smaller groups of turtles nest. Fuel costs prevent them from boating to the other islands more often, Hamilton said; in some years they haven’t even been able to make the weekly trips.

Although funding remains an issue, Hamilton said, the program’s success has made it a mark of national pride. Even those who resisted previous conservation efforts have now become supporters. Some turtles are still killed by hunters, said Hamilton, but that is to be expected in a region where 85 percent of the people live on a subsistence basis.

Meanwhile, the world has taken notice of ACMCA’s work. Cruise ships often stop by the area for a day, while yachts may stay for a week or more.

The coming years may bring additional threats for the hawksbills. “Nest survival has become more of an issue with beach erosion due to climate change,” Hamilton reported. But for now some of the damage from the past has been repaired.