Community Conservation in the Arnavon Islands

ACMCA ranger Dickson Motui clears a path for the hatchlings. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Justine E. Hausheer)

We value sea turtles as an important part of the ocean ecosystem, and are always happy to hear about new conservation stories regarding them. In many coastal areas, the sea-faring reptiles are hunted for their meat and their eggs are harvested from sandy nests, quite often illegally. We report on poaching frequently here, but have good news from the Solomon Islands, where The Nature Conservancy is helping with community conservation in the Arnavons:

After a 40-year history punctuated by arson, conflict, and poaching, conservation efforts in the Arnavon Islands are yielding a glimmer of hope for hawksbill sea turtles. Now, Conservancy scientists are working with local communities to make these critical islands the first site to be registered under the Solomon Islands’ 2010 Protected Areas Act.

From Headhunters to World War II

Archaeologists can trace the turtle trade back more than 3,000 years in the Arnavons, when the ancestors of the Roviana headhunters visited the islands to fish the reefs and harvest turtles for their shells and meat.

By the 1800s, hawksbill shell — often erroneously called tortoiseshell — became the first major export from the Solomons. Each year the shells from an estimated 1,000 turtles — mostly from the Arnavons — were stowed beneath the decks of whaling ships and transported to London, where craftsmen carved them into hair combs and snuff boxes. Roviana headhunters from New Georgia controlled the supply, trading shell for iron ore that they forged into tomahawks to further their headhunting raids in the surrounding islands.

The shell trade continued to grow, after a brief interruption by World War II, fueled first by post-war development efforts in Japan and then rising Asian economies. “For at least 150 years, 1,000 to 3,000 hawksbills were being taken out of the Solomons each year,” says Hamilton, “with many of them coming out of the Arnavons.”

Hawksbill populations across the world collapsed mid-century, and in 1975 the species was listed under CITES, followed two years later by a complete ban on all international trade. But demand from China and Japan continued, as did the harvesting.

Arson on the Arnavons

As the last three eggs tumbled into the nest, the rangers grabbed the turtle and gently pulled her to the side, watching to make sure she didn’t return to the water. The next morning we would attach a satellite tracker to her shell to learn more about the migratory patterns of Arnavons hawksbills.

They set to work, Leslie quickly emptying the nest by the handful on the soft, churned-up sand nearby. Within a minute the nest was empty, and he started to replace the eggs, two by two, counting as he went. For each 10 eggs he left one off to the side, and when the pile was over he counted the total by tens.

“One eight five” he said, smiling as he gently scraped sand over the pile, finishing the job the female turtle started. Nearby, the turtle continued to paddle sand over the nonexistent nest beneath her with her back flippers, pausing to lift her barnacle-encrusted head every few minutes.

It’s only then that I realize that this turtle is older than I am, perhaps by decades.

Read the rest of Justine Hausheer’s article on Cool Green Science.

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