2021 kicks off the United Nations Decade on Ocean Science. Meanwhile, a local conservation group in Watamu, Kenya races to save endangered sea turtles—by enlisting human allies.
December 10, 2020
(48 minute read)
When I first saw Henk, he lay motionless in an empty pool in the outdoor clinic ringed by lush tropical trees. His grisly wound nearly made me gasp. Henk’s left front flipper was a ragged stump that revealed grayish meat and white bone within. His looming silence belied whatever life or death struggle had brought him here.
The turtle’s mottled gray-green carapace formed an enormous hump on the concrete floor of his shallow pool. He was much heavier than the average football linebacker, we would soon discover. His shell was about three and a half feet long and nearly three feet wide. Three of his flippers extended like fleshy oars almost two feet from his body. Henk’s leathery head and tail were outstretched. His dark, shiny eyes resembled oversized lychee pits. He didn’t blink even when I bent down near him for a closer look.
Sea turtles are reptiles that have existed for at least 110 million years with little physical change to their sturdy systems. In the water, they are agile and powerful. The fastest species can swim at speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour. But on land, they can’t move quickly and when injured like Henk, they are strikingly helpless. Unlike land tortoises, sea turtles can’t retract their limbs or heads into their shells or the leathery collars of their necks. This may seem impractical, yet sea turtles are so hardy that they somehow survived dinosaurs. Green turtles like Henk once swam chock-a-block in the Caribbean Sea like a living carpet. When Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492, he encountered so many turtles in the Caribbean that his fleet had to stop for hours to let the migrating reptiles pass. Yet today they are an endangered species due to human activity such as fishing and environmental degradation—code for pollution, damaged nesting grounds and other destruction.
The turtle clinic tending to Henk is on a plot of land overgrown with the greenery that erupts during Kenya’s torrential rainy season. The facility is part of Local Ocean Conservation, a homegrown nonprofit in a town called Watamu on the edge of the Indian Ocean.
For days, rain had poured from the sky and pounded flimsy tin roofs. Fat, red-black millipedes inched along the dirt paths on their brush-like undersides. Puddles the size of small ponds rendered shoes useless so I waded barefoot in ankle deep water. Palm-sized land snails carried white bugle-shaped shells on their backs; their portable shelters reminded me of miniature covered wagons. That morning, when the rain had finally stopped, I went to the clinic to see if anything was happening. There, Henk lay waiting.
The reptilian patient mesmerized me. But Lewa, a petite Kenyan on staff at Local Ocean who was surely less than half Henk’s weight, sat nonchalantly on the pool’s edge, swinging his bare feet as he filled out paperwork with details about the massive creature. Local Ocean staff had brought Henk to the clinic the previous night after Kenyan fishermen called to report a green turtle they had found. Staff drove nearly an hour to fetch him. Now, in daylight, the team assessed Henk and his terrible injury. Someone speculated that a shark could have ripped off Henk’s flipper. Yet his flesh and bone seemed too neatly serrated; a poaching attempt with a machete was possible, too.
Local Ocean staff set about their work. Four men grabbed the edge of Henk’s carapace and hoisted him into a canvas harness. Their faces grimaced as they heaved the turtle onto a scale hooked to a pulley, then threw their weight onto a rope to lift Henk off the ground. He was trussed up in the harness but the carved mosaic pattern of his head peeped out from the canvas. Even amid all the jostling, Henk’s obsidian eyes seemed prehistorically all-knowing above a pair of dainty nostrils. His yellowish chin remained stiff and his mouth was set in a dignified line. As he dangled in the air, his giant leathery flippers protruded like wings—except for the stump of torn flesh pressed into the canvas. Soon, bright red blood dripped onto the floor from that ragged flipper.
Henk weighed 260 pounds and staff estimated he was approximately 40 years old. It seemed remarkable that he could become so gargantuan on his adult vegetarian diet of seaweed, seagrass, and algae. With great luck, a green turtle can live up to 80 years or more—but that’s with limbs intact.
The men gently lowered the creature to the ground and returned him to his empty pool. When released from the harness, Henk tried scrambling slowly around but found no exit. He pressed his face against the wall. His carapace heaved with reptilian breath and he released an aspirated sigh, the first sound I had heard him make.
Lewa filled the pool with water from a hose. The young Kenyan had worked at Local Ocean for eight years and was used to seeing turtles with all kinds of injuries and ailments. On a given day, the clinic’s patients might include a turtle with a fishing hook in his throat; another with grotesque, cancerous tumors covering his eyes; a tiny hatchling waving flippers like a wind-up toy; or a starving turtle weakened by a gut full of plastic.
Since its founding in 1997, Local Ocean Conservation has treated more than 650 turtles in its rehabilitation center and clinic, the only one on the East African coast. Local Ocean has also conducted nearly 21,000 turtle rescues and released most of them back into the ocean. But even if Henk survived his injury, his fate was tenuous. As water filled his pool, the hulking green turtle sat until he was submerged. There he remained, still as a stone.
Henk’s ancestors perhaps had nested on a primordial beach with dinosaurs. Cultures from the Iroquois of North America to the Moche of Peru feature turtles in their creation stories. In Hindu mythology, turtles carry the weight of the world on their backs, while ancient Chinese civilizations used their shells as oracles to see the future.
Now whether this marvelous turtle with a grievous wound would survive was one more cause for wonder in the weeks to come.
Another day, I rode with Fikiri Kiponda to meet fishermen who had caught some turtles. He steered the jeep over bumpy, muddy roads. They were unmarked but Fikiri, a key Local Ocean staff member, didn’t hesitate as he barreled past shaggy trees and bushes whose branches lashed the vehicle. Fikiri was a serious, compact man. He had left a coveted job as an accountant at a local hotelier to join Local Ocean in 2009 because of his passion for nature. That passion took the form of steely focus as he drove without speaking, eyes fixed on the overgrown dirt path that served as a road. I gripped the door handle as the vehicle rattled briskly over rugged terrain.
Nearly every day, Local Ocean gets calls from fishermen who have accidentally snared turtles as “bycatch” in their fishing nets. Local Ocean’s bycatch program, which returns accidentally caught turtles to the ocean, is key to nearly 21,000 turtle rescues. Over more than 20 years, the nonprofit taught local fishermen to call them whenever they net a turtle. In exchange, Local Ocean gives fishermen the equivalent of about $3 for small turtles and $10 for big ones like Henk — a token compared to what they could make illegally selling turtle meat and oil. The money is meant not as payment, but as remuneration for fishermen’s time, effort, and phone calls. Surprisingly, the system has worked.
When Local Ocean was founded in 1997, this seemingly simple transaction was inconceivable. Green turtles like Henk were prized by locals who ate and sold their meat. They also extruded valuable oil from fat packed beneath their shells, which is reportedly green-tinged, I imagined like Jell-O. In Kenya, the meat of a large green turtle would be worth up to $600 today in a community where an average fisherman makes less than $200 a month. Turtle oil sells for 2,000 shillings ($20) per bottle and is falsely believed to boost strength and immunity, cure asthma, and serve as an aphrodisiac.
Eating turtles was a widespread tradition not just in Africa. During the Age of the Sail, explorers could survive for months at sea because of turtles. Green turtles were “the answer to starvation that plagued Columbus’ voyages.” The creatures were set immobile on their backs with bound flippers and stored alive below deck as convenient supplies of fresh meat. As recently as the 1970s, the flesh of green turtles was a delicacy in Hawaii and Florida. Turtle meat canneries slaughtered the reptiles en masse and packed them like tuna. One label from a can showed a cartoon of a large turtle with a surprised expression standing up as two men speared it on a beach.
The flesh of hawksbill turtles, however, is useless to humans; it is poisonous because they feed on glassy sponges. Yet for centuries their beautiful carapaces of spade-shaped segments were prized for making tortoiseshell jewelry, eyeglasses, and trinkets. A global law banned the international tortoiseshell trade in 1973, though how well it is enforced depends on individual countries.
Many of Kenya’s fishermen live-hand-to-mouth, have big families, and make $100 to $200 a month. Fish stocks in Kenyan waters are dwindling so it is increasingly difficult to earn a living. Yet Watamu fishermen voluntarily take time to call Local Ocean staff who pick up their reptilian windfall to return it to the ocean. Imagine a needy person on an American beach finding $2,000 — a low monthly salary in the U.S. — and throwing the money back into the sea.
In Watamu, the turtle pickup spots are usually in villages near an ocean inlet called “The Creek.” We were headed there as Fikiri shifted gears and turned into a clearing. The tires splattered slushy dirt. We arrived in a village where goats calmly nibbled on grass. Chickens strutted around. A thin yellow dog barked vociferously as we approached and a woman yelled at “Snoopy” to quiet down. Two young men soon appeared from a house carrying small green turtles that waved their flippers in the air. They needed no introduction to Fikiri.
One of the fishermen was 21-year-old Steven Jeffal. Another fisherman, Mark Katama, 22, explained that turtles sometimes swam into fishing nets they set in the water. They had caught the turtles a day before in the inlet about five minutes from the village.
Why did they bother calling Local Ocean, rather than killing turtles and selling their meat? Steven seemed slightly puzzled by my question. “We don’t know about eating it before,” he replied. I realized Steven and Local Ocean were about the same age; the bycatch program had existed for most of his life. “It’s a good project to take care of turtles. They made a way so if we catch it, it can be okay,” he said.
Mark acknowledged that “you can earn a lot of money if you sell it.” A 20-pound green turtle can sell for 3,000 shillings, about $30. So why didn’t he? “We have laws in Kenya,” said Mark matter-of-factly. “If you sell it, probably they will kill it. And that will keep you in danger.”
Fikri quickly measured, weighed, and tagged the turtles. He swabbed a back flipper with iodine, then fastened a metal tag to scaly flesh with a tool resembling a hole puncher. Children gathered around us. One covered the turtle’s eyes with his small hand and the reptile stopped moving. The little boy had observed rescues before. Fikri loaded the turtles into a large padded box in the Jeep. One turtle frantically crawled onto another and flapped its flippers while looking for escape.
We returned to the tarmac road for a couple miles, then turned onto a sandy path toward the beach. The day was gray and overcast. Stringy seaweed covered the beach. One by one, Fikiri carried the turtles toward the ocean and set them down on wet sand. Instinctively, they scrambled toward the surf, then launched themselves into the waves. I could see their front flippers pumping like wings. It was as awesome as watching a captured bird released into the air and disappearing into sky. One after another the turtles glided into the water and took flight into the vast ocean.
As we drove back to Local Ocean’s center, I mentioned it seemed remarkable that eating turtles was an alien concept to the young fishermen. Fikiri acknowledged that behavior had changed over the years because of Local Ocean’s work. “It has been there a long time. It gets into their blood,” he remarked. But Fikiri was also realistic. Eking out a living from fishing was getting harder. Fishermen have asked for more money for recovering turtles. They know killing them is against the law, “but they ask, ‘What does the law do for me?’” said Fikiri. If Local Ocean runs out of money, he speculated, they would resume eating or selling turtles.
Progress is an ongoing effort, like fortifying a beach where waves and storms continually wash away sand.
“We were just two housewives!”
When two unlikely women founded Local Ocean in 1997, they couldn’t fully imagine the center’s impact. Nicky Parazzi , co-founder and today Local Ocean’s director, knew nothing about turtles and conservation. She just knew “something more had to be done” about rampant poaching.
Nicky’s husband was an Ethiopia-born Italian businessman and had settled in Watamu. She met him in Nairobi — the prospect of living on the sublime Kenyan coast was a plus, she admitted. After they married, the Sri Lanka-born Englishwoman started a crafts exports business in Watamu. Meanwhile, Helen Curtis, a British-Kenyan friend, was alarmed by the widespread turtle and egg poaching on the beach near her home. Turtles and eggs were a delicacy for locals. Hunting was easy when females crawled ashore and lay conveniently immobile while laying eggs. During nesting season, Helen began patrolling the beach at night and before dawn by flashlight. She enlisted Nicky to join her. They had no science training but nevertheless started Watamu Turtle Watch, which would eventually become Local Ocean Conservation. “We were just two housewives!” Nicky said incredulously.
She and Helen reached out to international turtle expert George Hughes from the Natal Parks Board in South Africa. They also contacted Jack Frazier at the Smithsonian Institute and Rod Salm at the Nature Conservancy by email, which was still a novel technology in the 1990s. “We didn’t have Google then,” so questions were basic. “‘If we have a turtle nest, what do we do?’” Nicky recalled asking. The scientists offered helpful advice. “If I’d really known how venerable they were in their fields I might not have had the courage to bother them so much!” Nicky confessed…READ MORE..