This article is the first part of a two-part series on the challenges facing sea turtle conservation in Ghana and other parts of the world. Part one focuses on the issues of poverty and unemployment in Ghana that exacerbate the difficulty of saving female sea turtles during their vulnerable time of egg laying. Part two discusses how the small Ghanian Sun & Moon Turtle Foundation is doing its part to save sea turtles and their eggs from poachers and fishermen who inadvertently catch them in their nets, as well as to educate the community about the value of their environment and the animals that inhabit it.
As the crashing waves on the Ghanaian coast fade with the receding daylight, the time of the turtle has begun. The daytime beach, ruled by scurrying crabs and stray dogs, sleeps after an exciting day to be replaced by the nighttime beach, dominated by nesting female sea turtles meticulously digging deep holes in order to lay hundreds of eggs. But the nighttime beaches of Ghana host a more sinister crowd and one over which sea turtles have no power: poachers.
On the colorful flag of the little-known African nation of Ghana lies a single black star, the “black star of Africa.” Ghana is one of the most peaceful and democratic countries on this plagued continent, with Ghanaians seeming to hold the “black star of Africa” in their hands. Many see the small nation of 24 million as a beacon of hope, a sign that violence, wide-spread corruption and dictators do not define Africa.
Indeed, the first leader of Ghana (then called the Gold Coast) intended to bring peace and stability to the entire continent. After leading a nonviolent quest for independence from Britain, President Kwame Nkrumah created the Organization for African Unity, today known as the African Union. He said, “[Ghana’s] independence is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of the African continent.”
In December, Ghana held its fifth free election, the first democratic election in Africa since the violence of the Kenyan elections, the failed Zimbabwe election and the coups in Mauritania and Guinea. After an extremely close run-off election in January, John Atta Mills became the third president of the Fourth Republic of Ghana, pledging “prosperity to all, not just a few.” He was inaugurated in Accra, the coastal capital, on Jan. 7 of this year.
Due to Ghana’s political stability and wealth of natural resources, the economy has thrived. Cocoa has become an integral part of the economy, and cocoa bean production has made Ghana into the world’s second largest exporter of cocoa. While many Ghanaians practice agriculture, a flourishing service-based industry exists with the latest televisions, computers, cell phones, supermarkets and fashion trends.
But, just outside these supermarkets are many Ghanaians and other Africans asking for money from the wealthy Ghanaians and foreigners. The same, regrettable system of forced begging by children seen in “Slumdog Millionaire” is a common sight in certain areas of Accra.
This situation highlights the substantial unemployment rate and the high percentage of the population under 15. Suffering from the age-structure problem, Ghana’s population under 15 comprises almost 40 percent of the total. In 10 years, where will these young people find jobs? There isn’t a McDonald’s or Hy-Vee to earn a bit of spending money at minimum wage. Much higher rates of unemployment will be expected as the working-age population grows at a higher rate than available jobs.
Unfortunately, many of these young people will end up selling in the market, competing with hundreds of the same sellers, earning barely enough to live. In rural communities, difficult economic times will likely lead to an urban invasion, and many more people will migrate into the already sprawling city of Accra, which is approaching three million people.
In coastal communities, some of these unemployed youth and adults will inevitably resort to poaching nesting sea turtles, which is not a sustainable source of income and is damaging to the local marine environment.
During my time abroad in Ghana, I saw firsthand many of these issues. I also met many people, both locals and foreigners, who are trying to solve these problems, especially those revolving around sea turtles.
The life of gentle giants
Sea turtles are long-living marine reptiles with a unique life history. Eight species of sea turtle roam the seas around the world: green, leatherback, loggerhead, black, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley and flatback. In Ghana, olive ridleys and leatherbacks are known to nest, but green sea turtles also have been seen offshore and occasionally are captured in nets.
Female sea turtles complete a journey paralleled by few other creatures. Every two or three years, the females and males come from thousands of miles and gather offshore to mate. Females then at night drag their bodies onto the sand and dig large holes into which upwards of 100 eggs are laid. After carefully concealing the nest, the female turtles will return to the sea.
After an incubation period of about 60 days, the eggs hatch and hundreds of baby sea turtles frantically scramble down to the sea, hoping to avoid stalking predators such as dogs, birds and bobcats. Some scientists estimate that only one baby turtle in one thousand survives until adulthood.
Once in the water, baby sea turtles face huge hurdles from the currents to predation by larger marine animals. Some of these babies will grow into adults and return to the very same beach that they were hatched on. By a process we do not yet understand, sea turtles return within a few hundred yards of their exact nest location.
Most sea turtles found in Ghana are olive ridleys, which are almost 3 feet long, weighing about 80–100 pounds. A few leatherbacks nest every year on the beaches of Ghana. Leatherbacks are giants of the ocean, measuring almost 7 feet long and weighing up to 1,000 pounds. Leatherbacks can dive deeper than most whales and dolphins. In the past, green sea turtles have nested on the beaches of Ghana, but recently they have disappeared. Occasionally a green sea turtle will be captured in a fisherman’s net.
Threats to sea turtles
Sea turtles face many threats, both in the water and on land. These threats vary greatly throughout the world.
In places like Florida, conservation efforts are focused on reducing beach interferences, such as lawn chairs, beach toys and debris from the ocean. When I visited a sea turtle monitoring operation near Sarasota, Charlene Mackin, a volunteer beach monitor, showed me a turtle “crawl,” tracks from a nesting female, that came dangerously close to beach chairs.
“Sea turtle females will get trapped in the beach chairs and flail until exhausted,” explains Mackin. Unfortunately, most of these turtles end up dying before help can come.
Efforts in Florida also consist of convincing beach owners to turn off lights at night, because lights from inland can disorient and distract females from nesting properly.
But conservation efforts that focus on clearing debris from the beach and turning off lights may seem like a dream for concerned community members in places in the developing world such as Ghana.
All sea turtles are listed as endangered by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and thus any trade of sea turtles is prohibited. Within Ghana (and the United States), each occurring sea turtle species is listed as endangered.
Yet, convincing coastal communities to change traditions that are generations old extends beyond simply legal actions or definitions.
The problem on the coast of Ghana near the capital city of Accra is two-fold. Sea turtles face threats when in the ocean and when on land. Fishermen often catch sea turtles in huge, invisible gill nets. Believing these catches are a gift from God, many fishermen bring the turtles into shore, knowing that their actions are illegal, and sell the turtles for their meat to local restaurants. An olive ridley female will sell for about $9 in the market.
This extra $9, split amongst the crew, could mean a better meal for families or could also mean more cell phone credit. Regardless, the fishermen view this divine gift as such; they do not “fish” for turtles but merely take advantage when the opportunity arises.
On land, nesting females face threats of equal concern. The coastal region around the big city of Accra harbors much poverty, especially in the small fishing village of Teshie, where I spent most of my time. Many of the men who are unemployed have realized that turtles fetch a good market price; $9 can stretch a long way in Ghana.
Recently, in Teshie, these unemployed men are taking to the beaches at night and collected females who are about to lay eggs. The men sell the turtles, and a new generation of sea turtles is lost.
These threats are present in most other coastal communities in Ghana and on the West African coast, but a small number of communities do protect sea turtles, as some local religions worship the turtles as gods.
Part two of this article will focus on the small but determined group fighting to save the sea turtles.
Resources for sea turtle conservation and information