Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-VIETNAM: Battle to Save Sea Turtles Continues

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, May 22 2003 (IPS) - When the great sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs at the Nui Chua national park in southern Vietnam, there is an ally waiting for them.

Old Le Nuoi knows that it will be 40 days before the eggs hatch, and that they will be particularly vulnerable during this time. So the 72-year-old man guards them until the baby turtles break out of the shells and make their first dash into the sea.

Le Nuoi knows sea turtles very well indeed, for he has hunted them for most of his life. Two years ago, he attended one of the seminars often held in Vietnam’s coastal towns and ecological hot spots by a chapter of the global conservation organisation World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF Indochina.

What Nuoi learnt there transformed him from a hunter to a conservationist. ”Before, I did not know how precious sea turtles were,” he said. ”I was not aware of the harm I did when killing these poor creatures.”

As one of the professional sea turtle hunters along the coast of the Ninh Thuan province, Nuoi had honed his skills from when he was 17. ”I only need to watch the direction of the wind or the waves to know where the turtles can be found,” he said. He made deadly use of his skills, sometimes catching up to 10 turtles a night.

Yet at the seminar, moved after hearing of the threat to the survival of the creatures, Nuoi volunteered to help. Sea turtles will return to the place of their birth – the old nesting grounds – to lay eggs, as the ex-hunter knows. At the very same beach, now a national park, where he once caught and killed them, he helps keep their numbers alive.

WWF Indochina has worked to drive home the message in Vietnam’s coastal communities that the sea turtle must be protected. The seminars, which have been taking place regularly since 1992, help participants understand that the presence of the peaceful animals is an important indicator of the local environment’s health.

Sea turtles date back to long before the age of the reptiles, when their ancestors shared the world with dinosaurs. They live in the oceans from the far north to the far south, but only breed in warm waters.

Despite conservation efforts, the steep decline in the numbers of sea turtles remains a serious concern. Three species are found in Vietnam: the green turtle (chelonia mydas), the Olive Ridley (lepidochelys olivacea) and the leatherback sea turtle (dermochelys coriacea), which is the largest of the sea turtles.

All three are listed in Vietnam Red Data Book of Endangered Species. While demand for turtle meat and products made from its shell exists globally, the largest consumers of turtle products are China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Tonnes of live turtles of various species are traded each day to make their way to southern China from South-east Asia, and some estimates place the number at more than 10 million turtles traded each year.

The sale of turtle meat is prohibited in Vietnam, but city restaurants do sell it illegally as a delicacy, even under the threat of being fined because it is lucrative. Just as economically attractive to turtle harvesters is selling the live animal to dealers from the China market – a 10-kilogramme turtle may fetch between 100 to 150 U.S. dollars.

Yet the hapless creature is not destined for cooking pots alone. Tourism adds a new dimension to the turtle conservation crisis.

In Vung Tau, a city on the coast 100 kilometres east of Ho Chi Minh City, stalls and shops openly sell souvenirs made from tortoise shells. ”We discovered 400,000 tortoise carapaces when we raided the spot in March,” said Nguyen Oanh, an official at Vung Tau’s department of fisheries.

Further south at Ha Tien, near the border with Cambodia, Oanh’s colleagues found another cache of thousands of tortoise shells, processed and ready for use. In the tourist market, this represented a huge sum because a tortoise shell of 20 centimetres by 30 cm can fetch up to 100 dollars.

”Large shells are difficult to find nowadays,” said Tran Manh, a souvenir shop owner in Ha Tien. ”If you were fortunate enough to find one, you could sell it at 12 to 15 million Vietnamese dong (800-1,000 dollars).”

Turtle skin can be turned into leather and is used for shoes and handbags, while its shell is used to make sunglasses, trinkets and jewellery.

The problem is a particularly poignant one in Vietnam, where the turtle is – in legend and in folklore – one of the four sacred animals in Vietnam, the others being the dragon, the phoenix and the unicorn.

Vietnam is a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the trade in sea turtles is illegal. Local and international pressure and awareness are helping, for instance, to throttle the tortoise processing that keeps the Ha Tien stalls supplied.

Environmentalists hope it is not too late, but this month the Turtle Conservation Fund released its first list of the ‘World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Turtles’ to highlight the crisis facing these animals. Twelve species on the Top 25 list are found in Asia, and more than half of Asia’s 90 turtle species are endangered or critically endangered.

The effects of the destruction of the sea turtles’ habitats and overfishing are plain to see. Beaches that were once home to abundant populations are now bare. The gentle animals can today be spotted only at three southern beaches – Tho Chau in Kien Giang province, and Con Dao in Vung Tau province, and at the Nui Chua national park, where old Nuoi solemnly patrols the shore.

 
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