The Marine Turtle Conservation Program is our flagship species program. We are working with community members to monitor nesting beaches and by-catches. Through its community development program, RAP-SL has been able to get the cooperation of locals in releasing captured turtles and burying dead ones. The project is funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Sierra Leone, five marine turtle species are known to occur in the country’s Atlantic coast. The five species include the leatherback, olive ridley, green turtle, loggerhead and hawksbill. All five have been recorded to nest on beaches in Sierra Leone.
Leatherbacks, the most threatened of all the marine turtle species in the world, are known to nest on beaches in the Turtle and Sherbro Islands and now also on the recently discovered longest stretch of beach by RAP-SL (from the Turners Peninsula to Sulima, about 105km) in the country. These reports confirm reports of leatherbacks nesting on the long beach of Sherbro Island by Fretey and Malaussena (1991). The Sherbro Island beach is about 52 km and is believed to host the largest population of nesting leatherbacks in Sierra Leone based on recent nest monitoring results. There is also evidence of nesting activities of the other species on the Sherbro and Turtle Islands, and other beaches on the mainland ( Fretey, 2001) including Shenge, Lumley, Bureh Town, John “O”bey and the now longest beach stretch in Sierra Leone (the Turners Peninsula beach).
Sierra Leone has well over 70 major coastal settlements and its continental coast is essentially composed of mangroves interspersed with occasional beaches. Fishing is the main activity of coastal communities and about 90% of the estimated 6 million people in the country rely on coastal fisheries for their protein supplies.
Unfortunately, the fish stock in the country is depleted due to the inflow of foreign vessels and other fishers who export about 90% of their catch. This situation, in addition to the limited education/sensitization about laws (both national and international) protecting endangered species and their habitats as well as the non-enforcement of laws have resulted in the exploitation of marine turtles and many other threatened/endangered species within coastal areas that are not covered by the marine turtle conservation effort in Sierra Leone.
Although in 2002 Sierra Leone signed the Memorandum of Understanding, developed by the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), for the conservation of marine turtles along the Atlantic coast of Africa and in 2011 the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources drafted a Fisheries Bill which included marine turtles as protected and prohibited species in the fisheries sector, the accidental captures in artisanal and commercial fisheries, collection of eggs, sand mining, and beach development continue unabated in coastal areas not covered by the present project. It is even worst on the Turners’ Peninsula where locals collect leatherback eggs, kill nesting leatherbacks and also kill captured turtles with impunity because of the feeling that their own communities have been left out of the marine turtle conservation project. Beaches on the Turner’s Peninsula, Sherbro and Turtles Islands are the most important leatherback nesting beaches in Sierra Leone.
In addition to the above, marine turtles are facing other threats including ornamental use of carapaces, human-dumped materials into the sea and on nesting beaches, and loss of nesting beaches to erosion. There is unawareness in some coastal communities about wildlife laws and insufficient education/sensitization about threatened and endangered species.
Since the inception of the marine turtle conservation effort in Sierra Leone, the involvement of locals has been considered as a key factor for conservation success. The community-based activities have included the provision of water supply facility for eight island communities and some main land communities, annual hiring of locals for beach and bycatch monitoring, construction of schools and community centers, supplying of school materials to the Island and some mainland schools, and assisting students in and from the Turtle Islands; these activities have shown that collaborations with the coastal communities and fishers will not only minimize threats faced by marine turtles but also enhance marine turtle data collection.
For the monitoring of nesting beach and the bycatch, the marine turtle conservation effort hires locals from the coastal communities annually. In the recent past, the effort hired up to 72 locals for both beach and bycatch monitoring. At present, the Reptile and Amphibian Program – Sierra Leone (RAP-SL) is engaging 55 monitors that conduct nesting beach and bycatch monitoring on the Sherbro (52km) and Turtle Islands, Shenge, the Western area Urban and the Northern Province.
Based on experience and information collected, there is a need for more extensive beach monitoring and working with communities on the Sherbro and Turners Peninsula beaches for the protection of nesting leatherbacks and the other sea turtle species.
RAP-SL will continue working with the present communities and also extend activities to other coastal areas along the Turners Peninsula that is considered important for leatherback nesting activities. It will also contribute to the already established data collection mechanism on both bycatch and nesting activities of marine turtles. RAP-SL is continuing its flipper tagging program, and the preservation of dead hatchlings to confirm species identification by community monitors. Extensive education/sensitization campaigns to raise awareness about the Fisheries Bill and the revised wildlife laws, the status of sea turtles and other threatened and endangered marine species are also issues at hand.
Having undertaken a series of community development programs within the existing project area there is now the need to intensify such community-based conservation activities to areas within the Turners Peninsula and initiate a data collection mechanism. In order to start, RAP-SL will undertake community needs assessment prioritization survey within selected coastal communities and base on available funding, it will fund community development projects that can be accommodated by the project.
Experience from present project shows that undertaking community development programs (no matter how small) within coastal communities will establish goodwill upon which to build interest in conservation programs. It is preferable to demonstrate benefits broadly to the community rather than payment schemes to individual fishermen for services such as collecting data on released turtles. These projects build capacity of the communities through small improvements to their daily lives that are tangible and ultimately allow communities to better assist with sustainable conservation programs which either succeed with community help and participation or fail with community indifference or opposition.