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Leatherbacks make a comeback thanks to Canadian support.

What does turtle conservation by coastal communities in the Solomon Islands have to do with Canada? Surprisingly, there are several connections, most involving the critically endangered Pacific leatherback turtles.

These huge reptiles that lumber up the black sand, wave-swept beaches of isolated communities in the Solomons from November to January each year are the same ones that travel huge distances to feed off the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific coast of North America. In fact, recent research using satellite tagging shows the turtles that nest on the western Pacific beaches in Indonesia, West Papua, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands make long migrations to the California area, and probably also move up the coast to B.C. and even Alaska to forage for food.

Pacific leatherbacks are among the most critically endangered species on the planet--at severe risk because of their entrapment in fishing nets, the over harvesting of turtle eggs and meat, and their consumption of plastics in the ocean, which resemble jellyfish, their favourite food. They have been with us since the age of the dinosaur; but now environmentalists and scientists are ringing alarm bells, predicting their total extinction within a decade. Indeed, Malaysia, home to one of the largest nesting beaches in the world, has seen the number of nesting females drop from more than 2,000 in the 1960s to only one or two today. Similarly drastic declines are being reported from the Pacific coast beaches of Mexico and Costa Rica.

This decline has led both Canada and the US to develop species survival strategies for leatherbacks, with a focus on conservation efforts in the western Pacific key among them.

And this is where the Canadian connection comes in. The Canada-South Pacific Ocean Development Program, with money from the Canadian International Development Agency, has been supporting and encouraging various turtle conservation efforts around the Pacific through the South Pacific Regional Environmental Agency since the 1990s. In PNG, the Solomons, and Vanuatu, researchers, NGOs, and local communities are surveying nesting beaches, educating communities on conservation, and monitoring turtle nesting. In the Solomon Islands, this work has shown that nesting beaches are much more important than previously assumed. Researchers identified more than 60 nesting beaches, with about 10 that host more than 50 nests each year. Canada has also helped to train village turtle monitors who document the numbers of turtles nesting, and their hatchings, while also educating community members in conservation approaches.

And that brings us to the people of Baniata, Rendova Island in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Unaware of these global concerns for the large black turtles, Solomon Islanders have for centuries considered turtles an important food source, eating about ten each year and collecting most of the eggs. The residents of Baniata are the descendents of those who used to live on Tetepare Island, the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific and one of the last remaining relatively intact terrestrial and marine ecosystems of the region. Since 1996, a local NGO has been working with the descendants of Tetepare to protect the island from logging, developing a resource and wildlife management program to protect its many species of wildlife and marine life, including three species of turtles.

Here we find another Canadian connection: two Canadians have been placed by CUSO, a Canadian international development organization, to work on a very unique conservation project in Western Province, adjacent to Baniata. David Augement and Laurie Wein, wildlife biologists from Alberta, are now in their first year of training and programming with the Tetepare Descendants Association. TDA began a turtle-monitoring project in 2002, both on Tetepare Island and on Rendova, focusing on conservation i awareness and education training, and hiring turtle monitors to discourage the harvesting of leatherback turtles and eggs and to promote hatchling survival. On Tetepare, the turtle-monitoring project focuses on counting and protecting turtle nests.

As a result of this intensive monitoring and protection program, the leatherbacks have begun to return and villagers have recorded hatchling leatherbacks. The turtle monitoring has also identified other i threats to turtle nesting, primarily a local predator--the monitor lizard--and work is underway to increase survival rates for the leatherback hatchlings.

Canada, through CUSO and C-SPOD, will continue to look for ways to support this important ecological program, even after the C-SPOD program officially ends in December 2004. To that end, this tall in the Solomon Islands, C-SPOD brought together researchers, conservation groups, NGOs, and community representatives from across the region to focus on the plight of these turtles.

Meanwhile the residents of Baniata and the Tetepare Decendants Association are watching over the rare leatherback turtles that come to their beaches, with the assistance of many concerned and committed individuals and organizations, among them a small group of Canadians who are doing what they can to ensure that these gentle and ancient creatures are with us for many more decades.
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Author:Williams, Gloria
Publication:Tok Blong Pacifik
Geographic Code:8SOLO
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:815
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