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Kenya Sea Turtle Project Teaches Conservation

Newly-hatched Hawksbill sea turtles find their way to the ocean on Shela Beach, Lamu, Kenya, June 12, 2012. (Jill Craig for VOA)
Newly-hatched Hawksbill sea turtles find their way to the ocean on Shela Beach, Lamu, Kenya, June 12, 2012. (Jill Craig for VOA)
LAMU, Kenya - There are seven species of sea turtle in the world - all of which are either critically endangered or threatened. Two of them, the Green and Hawksbill, are found in the Lamu archipelago of Kenya. To assist in their preservation, the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LAMCOT) has implemented a successful sea turtle tag-and-release incentive program. It is also educating locals and foreigners on the value of environmental consciousness.

Known by some as the “Turtleman,” Famau Shukry is passionate about his sea turtles. He works for LAMCOT, which was started in 1992 to help save the quickly-dwindling sea turtle population. The group receives support from the British-based Tusk Trust.

“Because now they are facing the specter of extinction. So should the turtle do also again then there will be no turtle all over the island. That’s why, I’m very keen to do this," explained Shukry.

Sea turtles are poached for their meat, shells, and eggs - to be used for medicine, food and even aphrodisiacs. They face deadly obstacles from fishing nets, pollution of the oceans and destruction of their nesting beaches. Newly-hatched turtles also face natural predators like the ghost crab.

To help reduce poaching, LAMCOT's tag-and-release program gives fishermen financial incentives for returning sea turtles caught in their nets. Tag-and-release helps to determine migration routes and timing, growth rates, and frequency of egg-laying.

According to Shukry, a turtle weighing 20 kilograms can fetch almost $60 on the black market. That same turtle can be returned to LAMCOT for tag-and-release for about $24.

“I think if you sell it, you’re gonna make a lot of money, but if you give it to me, it’s like, you’re going to have a, I mean, you are getting incentive at the same time you are conserving it," Shurky said. "Because we are not making fisherman to go and fish for turtles, in other words. We’re just convincing them, should they come accidentally with them, they should bring to us…Do not poach, but at least you’ll get something out of it. And, you’ll be doing the conservation at the same time.”

But there could be another reason.

Yusuf Ali, a Lamu boat captain who works with many fishermen in the area, says that criminal penalties are high for those who are caught poaching sea turtles.

“The meat now, we don’t sell. We don’t get it no more," he said. "Because there’s nowhere they can try to find. Because, the security’s proper.”

Education is a key part of LAMCOT’s mission, so Shukry invites tourists to visit the turtle hatchings on the beach for about $18.

This money is used to help pay for the tag-and-release incentives, as well as salaries for the beach patrollers - ex-poachers themselves - who protect the beach and monitor nests.

The tourists, like Melissa Martinez, 23, from San Antonio, Texas, seem to enjoy the experience.

“We got to ask, like, a million questions about all the sea turtles and the Turtleman was answering them with like a really big smile. So, it’s pretty cool. I learned a lot,” she said.

But the tourists aren’t the only ones learning.

Mohamed Ahmed, a former member of one of LAMCOT’s school environmental clubs, now helps teach other local children how to care for the environment and why they should help the sea turtles.

“So they clean the beach. Whatever, the plastic, and then they sit down [under] the tree, eat, join hands, bring them together, create more motivation for them, like, what they’re doing," he explained. "We try to educate them, because then they can catch it very easy. You know, when they’re young, they can catch much easier.”

As for the Turtleman, well, he loves his work.

“I was hoping if I was originated from the sea turtles because I love their characteristic and the system and the life cycle and everything. But when I’m releasing the baby, it’s like genetic, I feel like also crawling myself to the sea,” Shukry said.

The turtles seem to be responding.

Shukry says that, before the project, about four to five nests were discovered each year. Now the group discovers between 40 and 60.