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Effort to Protect Rare Turtles in Indonesia Shows Need to Address Human Problems as Well

In the coming days, scientists and politicians will gather in the Indonesian city of Manado for the World Ocean Conference. They will be talking about the role of oceans in mitigating climate change, and how to protect the endangered species living in the world's seas. VOA reports from Abun district, in the Indonesian province of Papua, about efforts to save one such species, the leatherback turtle.

It is a moonless night on Jamursba Medi beach. But the stars shine brightly enough to cast a dim light on the round shape that thrashes sand around. It is a sea turtle. She has just finished laying her eggs and is heaving herself back to the ocean.

Three men huddle above her nest, digging it up. They remove its freshly laid eggs one by one, with infinite care.

Made Jaya Artha hurries up the beach, holding with both hands the bucket that contains the 88 eggs. He is no thief, but a scientist working with the environmental group WWF.

"The nest is too shallow; if it's too shallow, then for the predators it's easy to smell it, the temperature is too hot so the hatching success is not good," said Made Jaya Artha. "So we have to relocate and make it safe from the tide."

Despite Made's precautions, only one out of 1,000 laid eggs will, one day, become a full-grown turtle that will eventually come back here, to her birthplace, to lay her own eggs.

In the Pacific Ocean, three-quarters of all leatherback turtles come from Jamursba Medi or one of three neighboring beaches in northern Papua province. They are nicknamed "giant turtle", for they can grow up to two and half meters long and weigh as much as a small car.

The leatherbacks are endangered, and scientists estimate only about 3,000 nesting females still swim the Pacific.

Starting Monday (May 11), hundreds of scientists, environmentalists and government officials from around the world will gather in the Indonesian city of Manado for the World Ocean Conference. The delegates hope to build new cooperation in studying how the oceans affect climate change, and can be harnessed to reduce its effects. And they want to improve international efforts to protect the seas and the creatures that live in them.

For the leatherback, the beaches are crucial for survival, but it is territory turtles must share with their worst enemy: humans.

Wau is a village of 55 families, a two-day ferry ride from the nearest town, with no phones, no running water, no electricity. The bell is a call to church, but there is no place of worship here. Four months ago, an earthquake destroyed the church, the school and several houses. Two people died in the rubble. Nothing has been rebuilt yet, because the villagers lack the money, and no one else has sent help.

In the local language, Wau means "turtle". The neighboring beach, where hundreds of leatherbacks nest every year, is called "Warmon", or "Sacred Water".

Mama Tabita, a short and tough woman, is a traditional leader in the village.

She explains that people here have been eating turtle meat and eggs for generations. It was no problem until the first foreigners came to Wau village, in the 1980's, wanting to buy turtle eggs and meat. She says it was the first time villagers saw money. It was the first time ever they could buy rice, sugar, clothes or cigarettes. The trade was brisk - so much so that the turtle's population became threatened.

That is why today the WWF pays the villagers to protect the turtles. Mama Tabita guarantees that no one eats turtle eggs or meat; and a dozen villagers have been hired to patrol the beach. They make up to $150 a month for this - a hefty sum here.

But the money has also brought discord.

During a meeting with officials from the government and the WWF, a villager stands up, arms defiantly crossed on his chest, lip quivering with rage. He throws his fist toward Mama Tabita, and lashes out at the officials. "When we were hit by the earthquake, where was your speed boat to come help us?", he says. "I'm a man, why shouldn't I get more help than those animals receive?"

Jealousies about who in the community gets the new jobs have led to a deep rift in the village. This sort of tension occurs throughout Papua, where land disputes are rife as traditional authority is eroded by modern ways of life. Creusa Hitipeuw, from the WWF, says that to protect nature, humans should come first.

"Actually, working for conservation is working for humans," said Creusa Hitipeuw. "Conservation practitioner[s] should look for ways where both species come together. I'm sure there is a way to do that."

Papua has long been ignored by the government in Jakarta. Although the province is rich in natural resources, its inhabitants remain among the poorest of Indonesians. But now Papua is opening to the rest of the world, both for the exploitation and the protection of its natural resources. The province's residents are starting to make sure their voices are heard, so that this new openness, and the efforts to protect to wildlife do not destroy the social harmony in their villages.