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Karimunjawa Fishermen Step Up To Conserve the Critically Endangered Hawksbill Turtle

The Karimunjawa National Park conservation team and fishermen carry turtle eggs to be hatched at the Legon Janten semi-natural hatching ground. Source: Noni Arnee

February 26, 2019

By Noni Arnee

Jepara, CENTRAL JAVA – The partnership between conservationists and the fishing folks was established 15 years ago and has proven to be a fruitful joint effort.

The turtle conservation program was spurred by a biodiversity census conducted by the Karimunjawa National Park office in 2003, when conservationists stumbled on turtle eggs and meat consumption by the local fishing folks.

“We found that turtle eggs were sold in markets and stalls. [People] consumed turtle eggs and meat. Then, we tried to investigate where the eggs came from, asked lots of villagers, fishermen, conducted field survey hoping to find nesting grounds, or what used to be nesting grounds, and also found turtle nesting grounds used by lizards. We collect all of those data,” said Sutris Haryanta, head of Region II Karimunjawa National Park to Ekuatorial, last September.

Haryanta, who was  a forest ranger at the time the survey was conducted, said Karimunjawa is an important area for turtles as it serves as nesting beach, feeding, and breeding ground.

Based on habitat characteristics, traces of nests  and eggs hatch, the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is found most ubiquituous in the Karimunjawa conservation area, while two other species; the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and olive ridley sea turtle (Lepodichelys olivaceae) don’t demonstrate siginifcant numbers.

“Yes, especially hawksbill sea turtle, fishermen oftentimes found young turtles trying to find food, the adults laying eggs and mating. Not many places where you can find all three activities are happening at the same time,” he said adding that it took three months to collect initial data required.

The hawksbill is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while the first two are endangered and vulnerable.

Odang, speaking under anonimity, a villager of Kemujanin Karimunjawa, said that fishermen used to sell and eat turtle eggs. While turtle meat is used in rituals, such as selapanan, a local tradition to celebrate a child’s birth on the 35th day.

“[Fishermen] took and sold to collectors for Rp1000 (US$0,071) per egg. The meat warms your body, so people got curious and want to eat it. [We]use [turtle] meat for certain rituals. However, we are now more aware and realize, thanks to socialization, that turtles are protected. Though some still consume them,” said Odang.

Having more knowledge of this condition and completing data collection, the Karimunjawa National Park team launched an initiative to conserve turtle in 2003.

“Initially, we just let the turtles hatch naturally but we checked, the eggs disappeared,” said Haryanta. “Fishermen traveled far, they rested and took shelter from bad weather in an island and stumbled on turtle nests. They just took the eggs home for consumption. It was so heartbreaking. We slowly approached fishermen, asking them if they find[turle] eggs, it is better to report them to officials and not eat them.”

Haryanta explained, cruising range and strong instincts are other reasons fishermen were engaged in the conservation effort. The latter proved to be useful in locating turtle nests.

Since 2003, at least ten fishermen have agreed to join the Karimunjawa Turtle Conservation team. Today, the team is working with 45 fishermen to locate and evacuate evacuate turtle eggs from nesting beaches spread across the 22 islands in the Karimunjawa marine conservation area.

“Because they are protected species, we focus on the hatching, so we facilitate the hatching process with the help of fishermen. However, not all of them are active because of its voluntary nature. But, based on the park’s data, at least 63 fishermen have reported their findings of turtle nests to officials,” he added.

Karimunjawa National Park conservation team transports turtle eggs to the semi-natural hatching ground in Legon Janten using a wooden boat. Source: Noni Arnee

It was not a smooth sail. Fishermen initially rejected the idea as they prefer to sell and consume turtle eggs than reporting their findings. Consequently, the national park allocated a budget to evacuate eggs to compensate fishermen’s diesel through direct payment.

“Fishermen were just being practical. They found 200 eggs, sold them for Rp200,000 (US$14.21) or consume them. We couldn’t compensate them with money for every eggs found, that’s the same as buying. So, the solution was to pay for diesel,” he said.

Fishermen are compensated between Rp150,000 (US$10.66) to Rp500,000 (US$35.52), depending on their cruising range.

All fishermen in the group was taught how to evacuate eggs from the nesting beach and techniques to transfer and carry them from the nests.

“Transferring those eggs must not be done carelessly. It takes at least two hours [of evacuation]. If you’re impatient, clumsy and not careful, it will fail,” said Matobi’in, head of the fishermen group, who joined in 2004.

Matobi’in confessed that he  consumed turtle eggs and meat before learning that it is forbidden by the law.

“I did not know the law, that it was forbidden. I used to eat turtle eggs and meat because that’s normal here. When we found  eggs, we took them home. It was easy to cary the 50-centimeter turtle,” he said, while acknowledging that fishermen are the spearheads of this conservation effort.

“If there are no turtles, how are we going to answer to our children, grandchildren? From then on, I decide to join the conservation team. These days, more turtles are seen again. I want to conserve turtles so our children and grandchildren can see turtles here,” he said.

Hard to hatch

The vast extent of turtle nesting beaches and low awareness of turtle conservation, especially the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, are the main challenges faced by the Karimunjawa National Park’s conservation program in the past 15 years.

Susi Sumaryati, a member of the turtle conservation team and Forest Ecosystem Controller at the national park, said that the success rate for semi-natural hatching are influenced by the evacuation process, the quality of the eggs, and weather or natural factors.

In 2004, the team established a semi-natural hatching ground, borrowing lands from islanders in Menjangan Besar, before moving out to Legon Janten located in the utility zone of the national park in 2013.

The center adopted turtle conservation methods applied by Meru Betiri National Park and Alas Purwo National Park in East Java, though challenges remain unique for each park.

“We don’t know when [turtles] will lay eggs, we can only identify new tracks. It would take a week or two before being discovered by fishermen. They found them in the morning and transfer them by noon, and that is a long journey. If bad weather occurs, it would take longer and the risk of tremors in the boats are higher,” said Sumaryati.

Aside from humidity and temperature of artificial nests, they need to be protected from any kinds of tremor.

“We modified a 25 kilogram paint bucket , sterilized it, and made it similar to the nests. Holes drilled on the walls. Then, we filled a third [of the bucket] with sand before moving the eggs into the bucket. The we filled more sands up to two layers to reduce tremors,” she said adding each buckets were given labels consisting of numbers, time and location of where the eggs were found.

Modified paint buckets containing turtle eggs that have been evacuated to Legon Janten for hatching. Source: Noni Arnee

She said that one nest can contain between 50-70 eggs and transferred using two to three buckets.

In addition to semi-natural hatching program, the team also care for confiscated turtles, those caught in fishermen nets, and stranded turtles, before releasing them to the natural habitat.

“We have evacuated a hawksbill sea turtle that was domesticated by local villager for a year. They fed it with  rice. When we tried to release it back to the ocean, the turtle refused to go to the water  because it has been contaminated by freshwater. We then trained it again to adapt to the ocean water. We call it “Marinem”, with tagging ID 3372,” she said.

Based on the national park data, between 2003 to 2018, at least 121 turtles have been tagged, 698 nests with 87,396 eggs have been discovered and saved. However, only 43,671 eggs have been hatched.

In 2018, there were 72 nests with 8,046 eggs found, but only 3,240 hatched.

“There is increase every year, lots of nests were discovered. This is a good sign. However, the hatching rate is still at 45-50 percent as all reports of egg findings, in whatever condition, must be combined. That’s the real data, [we] need to be honest that there have been failures,” she said adding that the target is to increase turtle population by two percent in 2019.

Increase public awareness

Despite challenges and low rate in hatching, there has been significant change in behaviour following the conservation program.

Sutris Haryanta, head of Region II Karimunjawa National Park, said that in the past 15 years, they have been taking a persuasive approach with the fishing folks to participate in turtle conservation.

“Fishermen are equipped with just buckets to do their own evacuation. We trust and depend on fishermen as patrols. We need to be persuasive to them, we just try to remind fishermen who still consume turtles. It is risky to be fortright with fishermen. We are firm but also calculative. We don’t want the relationship built over 15 years to be destroyed,” said Haryanta. “There is still no law that penalise those consuming turtle eggs. In the past they only knew that turtle meat is food or just considered turtle as pests, now, they are more than willing to report [the nests], that’s an amazing participation. Though, there are still those who consume turtle eggs.”

In 2006, the conservation team also approached merchants selling items made of carapace (the hard upper shell of a turtle) as souvenirs, such as bracelet, rings, or wall decoration in the Karimunjawa tourism areas.

“Hawksbill sea turtle carapace are beautiful as souvenirs. So, we approached craftsmen and merchants, collected data on souvenirs made of turtle skin. Within six month of collecting data and consultation, if there were any merchants still selling carapace, the goods will be confiscated and destroyed, we replaced them with other souvenirs to be sold. As a result, in 2007, there were nearly no souvenirs made from carapace,” he said.

I Made Jaya Ratha, a turtle scientist, said that education for public and decision makers is key in conservation of the reptile. Relying on the 1999 law on turtle conservation and its habitat alone, will not get the job done.

“No matter how hard we try save and protect turtles, if there are still people eating [turtles], destroying coral reefs, the feeding ground [for turtles], not environmentally friendly tourism, marine waste, or  just protecting the beach, the protection and conservation of turtles would not reach maximum potential,” said Ratha.

Ratha added that aside from natural predator and condition, such as sand temperature rise and beach erosion affecting the nesting beaches, declining population of turtles is also caused by other factors, such as egg hunting and illegal fishing. EKUATORIAL.


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