Probably when you think of the Congo, an image of sea turtles is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, these large creatures of the sea have been swimming along the Congo’s 23-mile long coastline for millions of years. Almost on the verge of extinction, the Congolese government, environmental groups, and passionate advocates launched a targeted program to save the Congo’s sea turtles.
Until 1992, it was legal for Congolese to catch sea turtles. They were such a favorite dish of the locals, that the species almost become extinct. In 1992 a law that prohibits catching and killing sea turtles in the Congo was passed and a turtle conservation project began, as a part of the establishment of the 187,000 acre Mangrove Marine Park. however, word was slow to filter down to the general public, and the sea turtles continued to be poached by hunters. Lacking sufficient funds, the Congolese government was unable to implement a comprehensive public education campaign, the absence of which meant that many well-meaning Congolese were not even aware that it was illegal to catch the sea turtles.
But, poaching is not the only threat the Congo’s sea turtles face. Thousands drown after becoming caught in fishing nets. Pollution from garbage and effluents poisons their water. Rising sea levels due to beach erosion and coastal development mean that female sea turtles have less and less safe places in which to build nests for their eggs. And, there is a high mortality rate among sea turtle hatchlings and younglings. Out of the seven species of sea turtles native to the Congo, six are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered or critically endangered list.
The dangers to the life of the Congo’s sea turtles persisted until 2012 when Marcel Collett came on board to manage Congo’s Mangrove Marine Park. Collett, who was hired by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, made it a priority to re-educate the local population regarding the sea turtles and their protected species status, as well as to implement meaningful enforcement policies that would bring about a change in behavior. It hasn’t been easy because the sea turtles have been a long standing staple of the Congolese diet. Furthermore, their trade provides a source of income for poor Congolese who have no employment opportunities and suffer from poverty. A large sea turtle can net quite a healthy return for a poacher.
In addition, in order to protect the fragile turtle eggs, Collet’s team conducts a very delicate operation every season. They patrol the beaches and carefully dig up nests in order to collect the eggs and bring them to special hatcheries. Once hatched the baby sea turtles are returned to the ocean surf. The program has been very effective. Since 2012, the Park has been able to save more than 60,000 baby turtles.
While Collett’s combined approach of proactive protection, raising awareness and law enforcement are clearly having a positive effect, the Mangrove Marine Park turtle project is also expensive. The government offers scarce resources and additional funding is received from public entities like the UN Development Programme and private donors like businessman Dan Gertler, of the Gertler Family Foundation, making it possible to continue this important activity despite the minimal state support. There are also new challenges like the rising tides along the Congo coastline, but the Park manager, his devoted staff, and financial backers are not the types to give up in face of a challenge, they are already drawing up potential plans and contemplating various solutions to keep the sea turtles safe.