BusinessPeople Daily

Saving critically endangered turtle

Bernard Gitau @benagitau

Here is a tricky one; all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. It gets trickier; if tortoises are turtles, why not just call all turtle-like creatures “turtle”?

Well, for starters, if the animal you’re referring to is a tortoise, some wise-guy is going to embarrass you with a correction every time.

But the most important thing to remember about tortoises is that they are exclusively land creatures, even though not all land turtles are tortoises.

Now to the bragging rights; of the seven turtle species in the world, Kenya is host to five, which is the reason we are telling you about them in the first place.

That, and the fact that the globe marked World Wildlife Day 2019 on March 3 with the theme “Life Below Water: For people and planet”.

And that’s not all, focus of the day was threat to existence of turtles, especially marine ones, and with Kenya harbouring 71 per cent of the global species — Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Olive Ridley and Leatherback turtles —her position becomes as unique as it is precarious.

This year’s theme also closely aligned with Sustainable Development Goal 14, with a specific focus on the conservation and sustainable use of marine wildlife.

“On this World Wildlife Day, let us raise awareness about the extraordinary diversity of marine life and the crucial importance of marine species to sustainable development. That way, we can continue to provide these services for future generations,” United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres said in his message.

The marine habitats of the Kenyan coast, which include coral reefs, seagrass meadows, mangrove swamps and sandy beaches provide diverse habitats for sea turtles.

According to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), sea turtles are widely distributed along the coastline within the isobars in areas mainly associated with sea grasses and coral reefs with highest concentrations at Mpunguti/Wasini, Takaungu, Watamu, Ungwana Bay and Lamu and the adjacent offshore islands.

And while turtles have been eaten out of existence in many other parts of the world, the greatest threat on the Kenyan coastline is pollution and poaching.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) says more than 300,000 illegally traded tortoises and freshwater turtle specimens were seized between 2000 and 2015.

“The seizures mostly involve small number of animals carried or kept as personal pets or souvenirs,” it adds.

While the government prohibit hunting, removing, holding, moving and trafficking sea turtles and their products whether dead or alive through the Wildlife Act (Cap 376) and the Fisheries Industry Act (Cap 378), there is no legislation protecting key nesting and foraging habitats utilised by sea turtles except for those falling within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

However, poaching of any endangered species carries a $200,000 (Sh20 million) fine, but enforcement against killing turtles hardly happens.

But more significantly, a smaller number of seizures of large to very large shipments containing several hundred or thousands of live specimens, suggests the involvement of well-organised criminal networks.

KWS also decries that the development of sea walls, houses, hotels and restaurants on the beaches has led to the destruction of natural coastal defences, and important habitats for nesting turtles.

“Turtles keep the beach landscape healthy by foraging on dead fish besides being critical seed dispersal agents,” the agency says, adding that increasing levels of pollution, particularly of harmful plastics, overfishing, irresponsible tourism and the warming of the ocean through climate change, pose serious threats to the turtles and the coastal ecosystem.

Lethal confusion

“About 80 per cent of marine debris originates from sources on land and marine turtles often confuse plastic waste with jellyfish and will die if they eat it.”

Some sea turtles feed on the sea grass that keeps the sandy beaches and dunes firm. The sea grass, in turn, gets nutrients from shells left after the turtles’ eggs.

But human activities including fishing has had a negative impact on the reptile population.

Figures released last April by Local Ocean Conservation (LOC), a not-for-profit organisation, that works to protect Kenya’s marine life are startling: 17,000 sea turtles were rescued from the nets of fishermen and released to the seas while 500 were rescued and admitted into rehab for treatment.

“This isn’t a celebratory post as we would only wish they didn’t need to be admitted in the first place. But to know that our local community works with us to try and save these beautiful animals fills us with pride,” LOC said in a statement.

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