An SNPA initiative to help change the fate of sea turtles

For over a year now, the Seychelles National Parks Authority (SNPA), in joint collaboration with Six Senses Zil Pasyon, and Jeanne Mortimer who is Seychelles’ renowned turtle expert have been conducting a turtle tagging project within the Ile Cocos Marine Park. The project which is being funded by the Systematic Adaptive Management (SAM) aims to determine the size of the turtle population within the area, but as we find out, there’s much more to a tagging turtle project than just tagging turtles.

Many people consider sea turtles as majestic creatures. Human attachment to them range from emotional reasons to scientific and right down fascination – and for good reason. Sea turtles live up to 60 years and by the time we find a female turtle struggle step after step up a beach to dig a nest to lay her eggs, she would have, by that time survived at least 25 to 40 years in the water which is the time it takes for her to reach sexual maturity. The choice of beach, and this is one of the fascinating facts about sea turtles, is usually in the same area where that turtle herself hatched. In other words, turtles come back home to have their babies.

On the other side of the human attachment coin is human activities which have tipped the scales against the survival of these ancient creatures who have played an important role in the balance of marine life for over 100 million years. Today, nearly all species of sea turtles are classified as endangered as humans keep slaughtering them for their eggs, meat, skin and shells. Recent social media posts here in Seychelles have confirmed that the sea turtle population continue to suffer from poaching. The sea turtle’ struggle doesn’t end there. Heart breaking images of the content of dead turtles caught in fishing nests show that plastic pollution is fast contributing to the destruction of their habitat, which ultimately has no happy ending for them. If we add climate change to the list we find beaches which are being eroded away and altering sand temperatures, all of which narrows down the chance of survival for the sea turtle in search of a safe place which feels like home for her to lay her eggs.

In a meeting with boat operators prior to the start of this turtle tagging project, concerns were raised over a lack of turtle sighting within the Ile Cocos Marine Park, something which tourists anticipate. Cliff Emille of the SNPA who is responsible for the park felt inspired to get to the bottom of the concern to find out more about the turtle population and its movement within the area. He teamed up with Anna Zora who is the Sustainability Manager on Six Senses Zil Pasyon to collect data to get a clearer idea on the situation both from ground and in water. Turtle tagging for Cliff means getting into the water and diving to get the turtle. The tagging process also includes taking measurements such as weight and length and also noting injuries (if any), capture method, feeding behavior, exact location the turtle is captured and what species it is. So far 25 turtles have been tagged, all of them hawksbill. Only juvenile turtles are targeted in water since mature ones are tagged on land.

On land on Felicité, the turtles get to meet Anna, a marine biologist who has been responsible for the resort’s environmental projects for three years now.  Since the project started a year ago, Anna has spotted 51 nesting turtles since the start of the project and has tagged 13 of them, 12 of which are hawkbills and 1 green turtle. In addition to the tags, she also takes photo identification of them since the scale on the face of each turtle is unique, more or less like a human thumb print. Anna tells us that prior to this project, there had been no turtle monitoring or tagging on Felicité.

This has been confirmed by Jeanne Mortimer who heads the Turtle Action Group Seychelles. Jeanne has been involved with turtle projects in Seychelles since 1981 and according to her statistics, there has been more than 20 projects since the late 1960’s which have focused on turtle conservation and collecting data on these ancient mariners.  As Jeanne points out, such projects go beyond data collection and also ticks important boxes such as community involvement and mobilization and defacto patrol.  Increased numbers in turtle sighting in protected areas such as Aldabra, Cousin and Aride, to name a few, prove that these projects have positive effects on turtle conservation.

The SNPA’s primary mandate is to protect and manage the ecosystems and biodiversity within the 8 national parks it manages in the Inner Islands. Sea turtles play an important role in marine ecosystems and as such, their conservation falls within the SNPA’ s mandate. Aside from their role in marine ecosytems, sea turtles are also an important element in Seychelles’ tourism industry, which is the country’s number one economic pillar. Tourists come to Seychelles with high hopes of spotting sea turtles in their snorkeling excursions or better still, witnessing the laborious process of a nesting turtle on a beautiful beach. With the SNPA’s move to financial autonomy in 2019, improving the marine parks’ services to the visitor is of crucial importance and part of that is ensuring a healthy population of sea turtles. SNPA is also currently undertaking other turtle tagging projects within the Curieuse Marine Park and the St Anne Marine Park.