Against the current – Turtle conservation in the Maldives

Collecting turtle eggs is still legal and will remain so until at least 2015, according to government regulations, despite recent scientific reports stating that the population of the majority of turtle species is declining.

“We have a moratorium that will end at 2015, then we will look at other measures that we have to take,” explained Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Mohamed Shainee.

With turtle population numbers declining and some species at serious risk of complete extinction, organisations are working hard to protect turtles from further degradation at the hand of both humans and the environment.

The biggest threat to turtles, according to Sam Hope – Marine Discovery Centre Manager at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa – is egg collection and trade.

“There is a ban on catching and killing turtles in the Maldives, and that has been in places since June 1995, however, there isn’t a ban on egg collection,” stated Hope.

According to the fisheries regulations, the” catching, fishing, collecting or killing” of sea turtles is illegal across the entire country. The collection of sea turtles and eggs is also illegal say the regulations, but this is only applicable to 14 islands out of a possible 1,192.

The continuing secret slaughter of turtles was demonstrated last year after photographic evidence the practice emerged, showing dozens of dead sea turtles loaded onto a dhoni.

More recently, an article by Dr Agnese Mancini – an expert on turtle conservation – reported a decline in the population of  the majority of turtle species found in the Maldives.

Published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the report established that while quantitative data on turtle numbers is scattered, the data collected recently from the entire Indian Ocean indicates negative trends in population numbers for all of the species, barring the Olive Ridley species.

Despite these findings, the laws governing the collection of turtle eggs remains the same and will do until at least 2015, stated Dr Shainee.

“Before that we will start planning for the next steps, and increasing our understanding – we will try and get stakeholders on board,” he said.

When asked if he thought the ban on egg collection should cover all islands of the Maldives, Shainee said that all islands would be protected, but that efforts needed to be focused.

“The rest of the islands we will do, but if they are not nesting islands there’s no point in unnecessarily restricting. For those areas that we know, we want to protect.”

Conservation efforts

Protecting endangered sea turtles is vital given the environmental pressures the Maldives already faces – pressures which themselves amplify threats to turtles.

In response to some of these threats, Four Seasons has teamed up with local environmental agency Seamarc to implement a number of valuable conservation programmes across the Maldives – based from their two on-site Marine Discovery Centres.

Among the pair’s successful projects is the ‘Head Start’ programme run from the Kuda Huraa resort – a fledgling project which has shown great potential to help increase the local turtle population.

The likelihood of turtle hatchlings surviving is estimated to be around 150:1, and so marine biologists have been hand-rearing a select few young turtles at the Marine Conservation Centre in order to give them a greater chance of survival.

“Where we do get a hatchling nest, we allow all of them to run down to the sea – because that’s very important for their development – but when they reach the sea we collect just two for our Head Start programme,” explained Hope.

Marine Biologists at the Marine Discovery Centre, Four Seasons

“The Head Start programme is aiming to provide a safe environment so those turtles can go through the early stages of development and avoid those early stages of danger.”

“Because turtles have got a pretty rough deal- anything from ants to rats, cats, seabirds, fish and sharks- its really tough when you’re only 4-5 inches long with no defence techniques at all -apart from looking incredibly cute.”

“So we bring them back here, place them into our pools where we do a weekly check up where we weigh and measure them. The weight is very important to their health, and we’re working hard to understand the sea turtle dietary requirements,” Hope continued.

“When the Head Start gets to 18cm – which takes about 13 months – we put a satellite tracker on their back and we send them out into the big blue. We download from the satellite every two days, and download the data into google maps.”

The tags are semi-permanent, meaning the researchers can see how far the turtles have travelled for up to 10 months.

To date, the Head Start programme has reared and released 37 turtles, with 16 tagged for satellite tracking.

There are a number of resorts which are contributing valuable work to environmental conservation, but in order to push this movement to the next level, Hope notes that the links between resorts and local communities need to be stronger.

“There needs to be more trust between resorts and local communities” he states. “What would really benefit the movement is a bottom up management, led by a greater amount of community work and community led projects.”

Regarding the laws against turtle egg collection, Hope said that it was unlikely all islands are being used for turtle nesting, but admitted there was a dearth of local knowledge which Seamarc was attempting to address with local surveys and community assessments.

“Turtles sometimes switch nesting beaches if the beach condition becomes degraded which means that they may start using unprotected islands in the future if they are not already. Before we can decide on scientific policy we require scientific fact on which we can base decisions.”

“It is our hope that our work will shed more light on the extent of turtle nesting activities in order to further protect these endangered species.”


Maldives’ waste management hampered by local politics, lack of funding

Government civil servants are still working to create functional waste management systems despite numerous failed projects nationwide and a lack of ministerial collaboration.

Establishing a national waste management system is dependent on the success of a US$6.5 million pilot program implemented by the Ministry of Housing and Environment.

Ahmed Nizam, Solid Waste Management Coordinator for the project, told Minivan News that construction of one system on the uninhabited island of Vandhoo in Raa Atoll will hopefully be completed by late 2013 and the system should be operational by the beginning of 2014.

Nizam explained, “This differs from previous projects because it is holistic, sustainable, and state of the art. It is a regional waste management system that includes everything – community awareness, equipment, infrastructure, transportation, and processing – whereas previous projects lacked in one or more of these areas.”

The World Bank funded Maldives Environmental Management Project (MEMP) will cover four northern atolls – Noonu, Raa, Baa, and Lhaviyani – and plans to process 52 tons of waste daily for 45 inhabited islands (over 7000 households), 15 operational resorts, 15 resorts in development, and nine industrial islands.

“The Vandhoo processing system has been engineered by a German company and meets European standards. The World bank would only provide funds to a properly functioning facility,” Nizam stated.

The processing facility on Vandhoo differs from previous waste management endeavors in that it has learned from the horrific failures of Thilafushi. There will be controlled incineration and no open burning, mixed waste, or land reclamation using trash.

Instead, composting of organic waste – which accounts for 70 percent of trash volume – will be dealt with at the island level, while the incinerated ash that cannot be reused for making bricks will be landfilled in “cells” that prevent chemical leaching into groundwater.

“Thilafushi is not what we want. The current conditions there pose serious health and safety threats to Bangladeshi workers living there and those toxins spread to Male’ and Villingili as well.

“The citizens of Raa atoll have expressed concerns the Vandhoo site will be another Thilafushi and we have gone to great lengths to ensure that will not happen,” Nizam added.

Although recyclables will be separated, there will be no facilities on Vandhoo to process them. Currently, the only alternative is to sell to neighboring countries.

However, there are plans to convert heat produced from the incinerators using a “donkey boiler” into electricity.

Nizam also explained to Minivan News that current government policy dictates waste must be brought to the nearest designated processing facility.

In practice, this “proximity principle” means that waste from the northern atolls can be transported to Vandhoo instead of Thilafushi.

“With only two transport vessels for this regional system we lack the capacity to expand transportation to the northern-most atolls. However, there is a possibility the transportation network can expanded in the future,” Nizam stated.

Depending on the success of this pilot program and access to development funds, regional centers are planned to be built throughout the country. In the interim, transporting waste to Vandhoo island will serve as a stop-gap measure.

A waste tracking system is included in this regional system, which will monitor how much garbage is being sent by resorts and matching this against what is received on Vandhoo, to discourage dumping into the sea by rogue garbage contractors trying to avoid fuel bills.

To further ensure the project’s sustainability, island councils in the region as well as civil society organisations are partnering with the MEMP to educate islanders through community-based awareness programs.

“Resort fees and household fees will cover operational costs, so this regional system will not be dependent on government funds. However, the government has the option to subsidize fees for islanders,” Nizam said.

The newly created state utilities company Fenaka Corporation Ltd will run the Vandhoo operations.

MEMP is currently negotiating with civil works contractors to develop Vandhoo infrastructure.

Past failures and current shortcomings

Establishing waste management systems on the islands has been an ongoing struggle.

Most islands have waste areas that vary in quality and have no means of processing or removing trash from the garbage areas.

Nizam explained that after the 2004 tsunami the United Nations (UN), Canadian and Australian Red Cross built infrastructure and provided equipment for some islands, however no island level program plans or systems were put in place.

A more wide-scale failure was the European Union (EU)-supported Ari Atoll waste management program.

“All the studies were completed and islands were provided infrastructure and equipment, however funding was withdrawn [for a regional processing facility] because the government-proposed equipment was deemed too expensive and no regulations were established,” according to Nizam.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government attempted to correct the problem but could not secure funds, or establish sustainable public private partnerships due to political polarisation fueling a lack of island council support, he added.

Currently, under the EU and Australia Aid funded Climate Change Trust Fund (CCTF), a pilot program is being launched to support waste management development on five Ari atoll islands and one waste transfer vessel that will bring garbage to Thilafushi, Nizam further explained.

Correcting the mismanagement of Thilafushi remains a work in progress.

The previous government under Nasheed had signed a waste management agreement with India-based Tatva Global Renewable Energy back in May 2011 to implement a system designed to generate power from recycling waste.

The contract has been undergoing renegotiation with the current government as part of efforts to provide what it has called a more “mutually beneficial” agreement – a move slammed by the Male’ City Council (MCC), which accused authorities of trying to “sabotage” the deal.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has pledged to take the “lead” in addressing waste management issues in Male’ should the city’s council and the Ministry of Environment and Energy fail to effectively deal with concerns about garbage.

There are no regulations or laws for waste management, only the Environmental Protection Act, however the Environmental Protection Agency is in the “final stages” of completing regulations and should be releasing them within the next few weeks, according to Nizam.

Is civil society filling the gap?

The opinion of many islanders is that since there is no way to process or remove the waste, there is no point in not littering.

Imad Mohamed, Executive Director of Huvadhoo Aid (HAD), told Minivan News about some of the projects and related challenges this non-governmental organization (NGO) has encountered regarding waste management and environmental conservation.

Huvahdoo Aid’s main focus in this area is helping other NGOs throughout the region develop community-based waste management plans.

“However, last year HAD tried to construct waste management center on Hoadedhdhoo island in collaboration with the Male’-based NGO Community Aid, funded by the Mangroves for the Future (MMF) program. We also had a partnership agreement with a neighboring resort that was willing to donate an incinerator.

“However, the Hoadedhdhoo Island Council claimed that they did not want HAD to build the [waste management] centre, because it is ‘mandated’ that the island council should run the centre,” according to Imad.

A source from the partnering resort explained that they were excited to donate the incinerator to HAD, assist with installation, and even modify it to create hot water free of change.

“It had been sitting on our dock for five months rusting,” the source explained.

However, logistics to transport the incinerator could not be arranged.

The incinerator has now been given to a different island in the atoll.

The Hoadedhdhoo Island Council did not respond to calls at the time of press.

Resorts going it alone

Resorts are aiming for “self-sufficiency” when it comes to waste management, since there are no regional centres in operation.

While there are tourism regulations that require certain waste management systems are constructed on resorts, they are only inspected once constructed, Nizam told Minivan News.

“Facilities are not properly used, are very costly, and some resorts claim tourists do not want to see waste burning,” he said.

Whether resorts adopt sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices is de facto voluntary.

Some are motivated by the need to maintain an eco-friendly reputation and sell the Maldives as a “premium [vacation] destination” that is also “environmentally sensitive,” a resort manager told Minivan News.

Their resort is “trying to do the right thing” and has developed a waste management system that has reduced 70 percent of their waste.

“Thilafushi is just wrong. We have reduced our trips there from seven per week to one,” the source stated.

The resort also conducts training for staff and their Maldivian team has “embraced” these environmentally friendly practices, the manager claimed.