Safeguarding Nesting Turtles with Poacher Patrols and Community Engagement

In the Cape Verde islands, protecting loggerhead turtles from poachers while encouraging alternative livelihoods is critical to long-term success.

Through regular beach patrols, approximately 40 kilometres of nesting beach are now actively protected each summer.
Through regular beach patrols, approximately 40 kilometres of nesting beach are now actively protected each summer.

Lying some 320 nautical miles west of Senegal in the Atlantic Ocean, the Cape Verde islands play a vital role in the lives of loggerhead turtles. This is because the summer months see this isolated archipelago play host to one of the largest loggerhead populations in the world. Like a prehistoric army emerging from the night, the serene reptiles gradually crawl their way up onto the beaches to lay their eggs in the sand.

But the slow-moving females make easy prey for the unscrupulous. Poachers have been making quick money from the illicit trade in turtle meat and eggs for decades, despite laws against the practise being gradually strengthened since 1987.

On top of this direct threat, the turtles are accidentally killed in large numbers by the fishing industry, by becoming entangled in plastic waste, and from being lured into towns by beachfront lights.

With all these human-created challenges, it’s no surprise that loggerhead turtles are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while the subpopulation found at Cape Verde and in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean is listed as endangered.

The Turtle Foundation springs into action

In 2007, the number of dead turtle carcasses found on the beaches of the Cape Verde island Boa Vista reached the all-time high of 1,200. With this grisly evidence plain for all to see, the Turtle Foundation started the Boa Vista project the following year to help ensure their survival. From the start, the foundation took direct action against poaching, creating beach camps from which volunteers could keep a lookout for poachers and protect the nesting turtles.

Since then, the foundation has grown apace, and now sets up five beach camps on Boa Vista every year during the turtle nesting season from June to October. From these, the rangers and volunteers conduct night patrols to deter and catch poachers. As well as relying on human eyeballs, the conservationists use drones to extend their field of view, and dogs, who can help detect poachers in the dark, and whose acute noses can even track turtle meat back to suspected perpetrators.

The Turtle Foundation also employs 47 rangers on Boa Vista during the summer breeding months and embeds them in seaside communities, where they act to protect the turtles in many ways. These include collecting data on nesting behaviour, relocating endangered nests to a hatchery, and engaging local people with clearing plastic waste from the nesting beaches.

Excellent results show a vigorous bounce-back

Through regular beach patrols, approximately 40 kilometres of nesting beach are now actively protected each summer.

Across Boa Vista, only 53 cases of poaching were recorded in 2021, representing a poaching rate of 0.17 % of nesting females. While low, the fact that poachers are still active given the opportunity, such as bad weather, shows the vital importance of the foundation’s presence. In fact, rangers caught two turtle poachers on a beach near the island’s capital Sal Rei in August 2021. Following a search with the foundation’s dogs that turned up a recently used knife, the perpetrators were arrested by the police and received fines.

With the 2021 nesting season safely over, a record number of 35,367 nests had been recorded, showing the continuation of a steady resurgence in the loggerhead turtle’s numbers. Moreover, with well over 200,000 nests made on the beaches of the entire Cabo Verde archipelago in 2021, the nesting population of Cape Verde is now thought to be the largest remaining population of this species in the world.

2022 progress so far

In 2022, support from Hurtigruten Foundation of NOK 85,000 (approx. USD 8,700) will help fund the rangers and volunteers conducting night patrols to protect turtles during the nesting season. In addition, the volunteers will continue with their efforts to clean the beaches of plastic waste, collect data on nesting behaviour, and relocate endangered nests to the hatchery.

By 9 September 2022, there had been 3,567nests recorded so far, as the nesting season progresses towards its end in October. Nesting numbers are different every year and can fluctuate greatly, so despite this being a lower number than last year, it’s no cause for concern.

Learning to venerate the marine ecosystem – by swimming!

To ensure the future sustainability of their progress, the Turtle Foundation seeks to anchor their efforts in the local community. To this end, the Turtle Foundation places a strong focus on engaging local people with general environmental education and awareness, to foster veneration for the turtles.

This includes clever campaigns such as a simple card game that teaches children and adults alike about the exciting and unique characteristics of turtles, as well as how life is from a turtle’s point of view, with all the challenges they face to survive. Another campaign got locals involved in a beach clean-up in 2021, where they found large amounts of medical rubbish related to the coronavirus pandemic such as discarded facemasks.

A particularly ingenious initiative has been to teach children to swim. After finding out that only 14% of the children and young people of Boa Vista can swim safely in the sea, the foundation set up courses to train local people to become swimming instructors. By September 2022, about 100 children had participated in the swimming courses, and also got the chance to visit the beach camp and learn about the importance of sea turtles, as well as the threats they face.

Volunteer Tillmann Josifek, who helped develop the swimming courses, sums up how they relate to the protection of the sea turtles: “For me it was fascinating and shocking to see how great the fear of the sea was represented in the population of Boa Vista and how low the proportion of swimmers was. Due to the lack of connection to the underwater world, fostered by the fear of the dangers in the sea, it was no wonder to me that poaching is a problem for the sea turtles in Cape Verde. If there is no positive connection to the sea, people are not willing to protect the marine ecosystem either.”

Alternative employment to ensure sustainability

In addition to providing direct employment in conservation, part of the longer-term approach of the Turtle Foundation is to participate in developing responsible tourism and making it clear that safeguarding the turtles is an important aspect of this. By creating such alternative livelihoods, they hope the turtle meat trade will become unnecessary as the local population will thrive without it.

About the Turtle Foundation

Founded in 2000, the Turtle Foundation prevents sea turtles from being cruelly killed and eradicated, their nesting beaches from being polluted and built over, and their marine habitats from being contaminated and destroyed by plastic waste and other pollution.

Where can I learn more?

You can see more on the Turtle Foundation’s website.​

If you would like to learn more about wildlife in Cape Verde, see Wildlife in West Africa & Cape Verde