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19 sea turtles killed on the beaches of Boa Vista 11 Agosto 2014

The loggerhead turtle protection campaign on the island of Boa Vista this year has been blemished with the confirmed capture of 19 female animals, although some say the actual figure may be higher. The pullout of Armed Forces patrols, who over the past six years had provided “a major contribution to the protection of the animals,” is believed to have made life easier for those hunting for the turtles, according to the non-governmental organizations that work to protect them. According to Armed Forces Chief of Staff Alberto Fernandes, however, the decision to take the soldiers off the beat on Boa Vista’s beaches is merely political. Meanwhile, Director General of the Environment Moisés Borges says that the government is in negotiations to resolve the issue before the end of the nesting season, which is already halfway through. As they wait anxiously for the soldiers to return, NGO Natura 2000 has counted 18 female turtle carcasses in the past month, while the Turtle Foundation has found one carcass on the beaches it patrols.

19 sea turtles killed on the beaches of Boa Vista

NGOs Natura 2000 and the Turtle Foundation are despaired about the pace with which turtles are being slaughtered on Boa Vista – and the absence of military patrols could, by the end of the nesting season, result in the proliferation of barbeques and other “delicacies” featuring turtle meat and eggs on the island. Indeed, Boa Vista residents never actually abandoned their penchant for turtle meat - even with the constant presence of soldiers, hunters are known to have killed some 40 turtles last year on the beaches under surveillance.

Modus operandi

The very entities working to protect the endangered species acknowledge that turtle hunters have developed techniques to camouflage their captures: until recently, the animals were captured prior to laying their eggs, or slightly thereafter. Now, however, the hunters let the turtles return all the way to the water before carrying them off, thus leaving no evidence on the sand of their having been captured before returning to the sea. As such, it has become more difficult to effectively determine the number of turtles captured. And, as one kilogram of turtle meat may be sold for as much as 800 escudos, further measures are needed to dissuade potential hunters.

The presence of soldiers on the beaches is seen by these organizations as of “vital importance,” considering the fact that the population has not been made adequately aware of the need to protect the species. Indeed, even with troops patrolling the beaches, the hunters’ strategy and the vegetation that is abundant on the sand dunes, allied with the darkness of the night, make patrols more difficult.

Absence of patrols

In declarations to A Semana Online, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Alberto Fernandes said that the decision to remove the patrols was of political order. Behind it are issues such as the conflicts that took place in the northern zone of the island last year, when soldiers became involved in confrontations with the local community, resulting in accusations of lack of preparation on the part of the troops to work among civilians. Also behind the decision is the lack of housing for the soldiers in question, given that some of the personnel were being housed at the island’s Civil Protection Center, the use of which was subsequently requested by the local municipal chamber. And, although the NGOs and the community at large acknowledge that the military has been doing good work, the Armed Forces had the impression, especially from politicians, that the soldiers were not welcome on Boa Vista.

Another factor is that, given the recent increase in the police contingent on the island, which has received 10 additional officers, the National Police could provide coverage to the protection of turtles. However, even during the day the distance between the police station and the beach with the highest density of sea turtle nests, Ervatão, is one hour, and nighttime travel takes much longer, given the poor quality of the road leading there. The soldiers, for their part, remained camped on the beach and patrolled every night. As such, the argument that police could compensate for the absence of soldiers in an effective manner is tenuous. A Semana Online attempted on several occasions to hear Boa Vista National Police commander Firmina Melício regarding the issue, but was unsuccessful.

A final factor that may have played a part in the pullout of the soldiers is a supposed debt on the part of the Directorate General of the Environment with the Armed Forces, but this was not confirmed.

A total of 26 soldiers had been assigned to Boa Vista – 10 in the Safe Tourism program, and 16 in the turtle protection program, during the nesting season (July-October).

The government’s vision

Minister of the Environment Antero Veiga and Director-General of the Environment Moisés Borges visited Boa Vista in late July to find out more about the island’s environmental issues, and the issue of the sea turtles was one of the items discussed.

Borges told A Semana Online that the Directorate General of the Environment and the Ministry in general are in negotiations with the Armed Forces to see if they can send some soldiers to the island before the end of the current nesting season.

Borges expressed satisfaction with the work being done by NGOs to protect the sea turtles, but said that it was equally important for Cape Verdeans to stop consuming turtle meat. The Director-General of the Environment affirmed that it was crucial for Cape Verdeans to have a notion of the importance the species represents for the country, particularly in the tourism sector, and expressed his belief that much work is still to be done to raise people’s awareness regarding the matter. Indeed, this underlines the importance of the presence of military personnel on the island’s beaches at this stage, according to Borges.

Difficulties

A worrisome fact remains: the beaches watched over by Natura 2000 are, according to the director of the NGO’s camp, Maria Soares, very attractive to hunters – first of all, because they are in the north of the island, and secondly because of the density of nests.

The Turtle Foundation, for its part, patrols a total area of 29 kilometers with various different beaches, and has a group of some 50 people, who work in shifts carrying out surveillance. Natura 2000 has 30 volunteers to patrol an area of approximately 15 kilometers, between the beaches of Ervatão and Porto Ferreira. Bios CV, for its part, is responsible for João Barrosa beach (five kilometers), which is often visited by tourists on “turtle watch” excursions, and is, as such, generally avoided by hunters. Even so, Bios CV has 15 people to guard the beaches.

Challenges

The greatest challenge is, certainly, Cape Verdeans’ continuing appetite for – and willingness to illegally purchase – turtle meat. What’s more, managing to oversee such long beaches, full of vegetation, makes the job hard for those carrying out surveillance. There is also a need for legislation that can effectively punish lawbreakers in this realm, as well as for legislation in the realm of eco-tourism that can bring real benefits to communities, especially those located in or near environmental protection zones.

What the residents of Boa Vista want

Boa Vista residents, particularly those living in the northern districts of the island, have harshly criticized the activities resulting from the drive to protect the sea turtles, and their complaints are many: they criticize the NGOs, which employ few locals, and they contest the fact that they receive little or nothing in compensation for the disturbance caused by the vehicles that make their way to the beaches at night for the turtle watching excursions.

This point has been acknowledged, mainly by sector authorities, as the hardest to resolve, given that locals, upon seeing that other entities (such as tourist agencies) profit from the turtles and that their communities benefit very little, express their belief that hunting turtles and eating their meat is a way they have found to “earn” something from the species, which, after all, “belongs” to Boa Vista. They also demand that local Boa Vista residents, especially those in the north of the island, benefit from the presence of the species. In this respect, the Directorate General of the Environment, the National Fisheries Development Institute (INDP), the Boa Vista municipal chamber, the NGOs working to protect the species (Natura 2000, Turtle Foundation and Bios CV), associations and civil society itself have failed in their attempts to create benefits for those communities that abstain from hunting sea turtles and receive nothing in exchange. Tourists, meanwhile, pay 50 euros to go on turtle watching excursions, but not a single euro has yet gone to the communities.

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