Widespread ‘secret’ slaughter of endangered sea turtles despite ban; “very tasty” say killers

Sea turtles are being slaughtered en masse in the Maldives with no action taken by authorities to uphold local conservation laws or adhere to international agreements to protect the endangered species.

A photo of one such slaughter taken earlier this year and obtained by Minivan News shows dozens of dead sea turtles on a dhoni (local boat).

The Maldives is home to five species of sea turtles. Protecting the endangered species is crucial for maintaining environmental health and functioning – and by extension human health – in the Maldives. Without this keystone species the unique Maldivian ecosystems – ocean, reef, sea grass, and coasts – would cease to exist altogether.

Reports of sea turtle slaughter, hatchlings kept as pets, and nests destroyed for egg collection are commonplace in the Maldives despite the government recognising the problem through national legislation and international agreements.

Kakaaeriyadhoo killing

Approximately 90-180 sea turtles have been killed this year by locals from Kan’ditheemu island in Shaviyani Atoll, who have been traveling to the nearby uninhabited island of Kakaaeriyadhoo to slaughter the turtles and take their eggs, an informed source told Minivan News.

“This is a well known nesting island and every night a group is going and hunting the turtles. It is so obvious, every day since January one or two are killed,” the source stated.

“They wait for them to nest on the island, or go snorkeling to hunt them. Even on Kan’ditheemu sea turtles that come into the sea grass area are killed.

“The police know about this as well as the Kan’ditheemu Island Council, who say there is nothing they can do.

“More local awareness is needed and actions need to be taken by the authorities, like issuing fines and jail time. The lack of monitoring is challenge. Additionally, fishing vessels that participate in sea turtle slaughter should be held for a time as punishment,” the source suggested.

According to the source, the Shaviyani Atoll Council is not caring for the uninhabited islands and there is no longer a caretaker for Kakaaeriyadhoo.

One individual who admitted to killing sea turtles but would not provide his identity, told Minivan News why the sea turtle slaughter occurs.

“Sea turtles have very tasty fat and meat, but it’s very rare to get. There are not enough turtles in the sea,” the source said. “The killing is done very, very secretly.”

The source acknowledged the legal prohibitions against killing endangered sea turtles, but remains undeterred. He also explained this sentiment is common nationwide, so sea turtle killing often goes unreported.

“I don’t know why the government is not taking the issue very seriously. If the government doesn’t worry, then why should we worry? I’ve never heard of anyone prosecuted or arrested, ever,” the source declared.

“People don’t know how important turtles are for the environment. Even youth don’t know that’s the truth.

“People are not very aware of legal things. If anyone sees [or knows of] someone killing turtles, they won’t report it. Communities are very small and no one wants their friends, colleagues, cousins etc, to get arrested. You’d feel guilty,” the source added.

Government disavows knowledge: “No one complains legally”

Kan’ditheemu Island Council President Nasrulla told Minivan News that the sea turtle killing is not “directly an issue” because “no one has complained legally”.

“It’s a secret thing. People go at night time,” Nasrulla stated.

“No one has officially reported this. It’s all been rumors,” he added.

No reports have been filed according to Shaviyani Atoll Council President Moosa Fathy.

Fathy explained the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture is responsible for regulating uninhabited islands.

“They have the authority to give any island to a particular person for a long term lease or they can ask a caretaker to look after the island,” Fathy stated.

“Atoll councils have not been given the [uninhabited] islands in any atoll. It’s not our duty according to article 153 of the Decentralisation Act.

“The Attorney General has to do this within six months, but it’s been nearly three years now. The Local Government Authority and the Ministry of Finance and Treasury have to do a lot.

“We cannot lease to any person or change any agreements. Two or three years before an uninhabited island would be given to a caretaker, but those agreements are not valid now,” he added.

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Ahmed Shafeeu told Minivan News that the ministry has not received any reports of sea turtle slaughter from the Kan’ditheemu Island Council or Shaviyani Atoll Council, but said he would look into the matter.

Shafeeu explained that in February 2012, the Fisheries Ministry handed over uninhabited island care to the atoll councils. The councils are expected to assign caretakers and look over leases issued by the ministry.

“It’s their responsibility to properly look after these islands. However, it’s not a requirement that someone always has to be stationed there,” Shafeeu stated.

“There are issues with atoll councils taking responsibility for uninhabited islands as per the law. They are reluctant because they have not been given the authority to lease these islands,” he added.

Shafeeu emphasised that anyone identified or suspected to be participating in sea turtle killing should be reported to the police, who should take action to enforce the law.

“Sea turtle capture and slaughter are unlawful – it’s completely forbidden. They are protected. It is a criminal offense and there are penalties for that.

“Any responsible authorities that receive any reports that come, need to attend to it immediately. Any responsible person can report directly to the police,” Shafeeu added.

In late 2012, 104 hatchling sea turtles were taken from Kakaaeriyadhoo in Shaviyani Atoll and sold to islanders on Kan’ditheemu.

Earlier in 2012, a marine biologist working in the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve reported the discovery of the remains of a baby shark and endangered sea turtle barbecue on the uninhabited island of Funadhoo, one of the country’s 14 priority nesting beaches legally protected under Maldivian law.

In 2010, sea turtles were discovered dead on the beach of Laabadhoo island in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, cut open for their eggs and left to rot on the sand.

Culture of killing

Environmental conservationist and Kan’ditheemu resident Hassan Solah discussed the endemic problem of sea turtle slaughter with Minivan News.

“This is illegal, but no one is following the law. They kill the sea turtles for the body fat and eggs. All the meat is thrown away.”

The turtle fat and derived oil is believed to be an aphrodisiac that works similarly to erectile dysfunction drugs, such as viagra.

Solah explained this belief is common throughout the Maldives and the ‘aphrodisiac’ oil is referred to as ‘theyokundi’ or ‘velaakaleyya’.

Eggs are also taken from sea turtle nests or gutted from dead adult sea turtles and cooked in a similar fashion to chicken eggs. The eggs are used to make the dish ‘velaa folhi’, similar to quiche.

“It’s not a tradition to eat sea turtles. We grow up only eating tuna, garudhiya (fish soup eaten on rice), rihaakuru (fish boiled down into a thick paste), and curries are recent since they began incorporating spices from India and Sri Lanka,” stated Solah.

Conversely, a source who has participated in sea turtle slaughter explained there is a cultural history of killing turtles for their meat and fat-derived oil.

“The practice of killing sea turtles is very traditional in many ways. We eat the flesh and the fried fat,” the source stated.

“We also used to use the oil [derived from their fat] for lights in our homes. The sea turtle oil was previously put on dhonis (boats) to protect the wood from fungus.

“Island communities used to make a huge feast where everyone would eat together. People would catch six or seven turtles. This stopped around the 1980’s.

“There used to be a big store owned by the island chief. During that time if anyone caught a turtle they would have to give the oil to the shop,” the source added.

Some of these practices have stopped because “traditions change”, he said.

Crucial for Maldivian survival

Protecting endangered sea turtles is vital given the environmental pressures the Maldives already faces – which also amplify threats to turtles – such as extreme vulnerability to climate change impacts, declining fish stocks, as well as the lack of waste management and the resulting pollution on most islands.

“Sea turtles are a big part of the food chain. All species are sea grazers and keep the ocean in balance. They need to be protected and saved,” stated Solah.

“They eat jellyfish, which have become a huge problem in some parts of the world. Hawksbill turtles primarily live on the reef, while green turtles maintain the seagrass. Because sea turtles eat predators, this allows juvenile fish to grow and flourish. They also keep algae blooms in check,” he added.

Solah also explained that protecting sea turtles and leaving their nests untouched is essential for protecting coastal erosion.

“Turtles also support coastal ecosystems. When they lay their eggs, a few do not hatch. This is important for providing the shoreline with nutrients so trees are able to grow; their roots then hold the sand in place,” he said.

There is currently a nationwide ban on catching or killing sea turtles and under this moratorium 14 priority nesting beaches are protected, however collecting eggs is still permitted.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the Maldives has voiced its concern regarding the ongoing killing and capturing of protected species, such as sea turtles, and has urged these illegal activities stop immediately.

In March of this year, the country acceded to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This treaty aims to ensure the international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival and legally requires the Maldives to adopt domestic legislation to ensure national implementation.

The Maldives became a party to the Indian Ocean South-East Asian (IOSEA) Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding in July 2010. This international agreement seeks to conserve and replenish depleted marine turtle populations via an associated conservation and management plan that focuses on “reducing threats, conserving critical habitats, exchanging scientific data, increasing public awareness and participation, promoting regional cooperation, and seeking resources for implementation”.

The Maldives committed to the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992, requiring the country maintain biodiversity and the conservation of endangered species. The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) has not been ratified.

Local tourism opportunities

Keeping these ecosystems health is vital to meet Maldivian subsistence needs, as well as maintain the fishing industry and attract tourists. Both sectors account for approximately two-thirds of Maldivian GDP.

“Sea turtles are protected and by keeping their populations up, more tourism profits can be gained. Every day tourists pay a lot of money to see the turtles. They will stop to visit a local island and spend money in local businesses for a full day trip,” stated Solah.

“Instead of killing sea turtles, turtle ‘points’ should be protected, so in the future it will become popular and many dive boats and safari boats will come.

“This is what happened Ari Atoll with whale sharks. Local islanders used to hunt the whale sharks, but now they have a daily ‘show’ for tourists that explains how they used to hunt the sharks, what tools they used, and it generates lots of money from tourist excursions,” Solah added.

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Bluepeace cautious over government’s Baa Atoll preservation plans

Local environmental NGO Bluepeace has said government action to establish and extend several protected ecological preserves in Baa Atoll is an “encouraging development”, despite its concerns about the efficiency of collaboration between different ministerial branches over eco-protection.

Ali Rilwan from Bluepeace said that he supported the government’s action in regard to environmental protection across the southerly atoll, yet insisted the measures were more of a “first step” towards a comprehensive national preservation system rather than a finalised commitment to conservation.

The comments were made as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday that it had signed a declaration with the Ministry of Housing and Environment to protect several different habitats within Baa Atoll in honour of World Environment Day.

Protected areas in the atoll, which has been described by Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam as having one of the country’s most diverse eco-systems, will now include Maahuruvalhi Faru and the islands of Bathalaahura and Gaaganduhura along with their house reefs, as well as the island of Goidhoo and its swamp land.

Previously protected areas in the atoll, including Dhigalihaa and the island of Hanifaru along with its adjoining bay – already popular spots for divers trying to see whale sharks – were also extended to become larger preserves.

The Environment Ministry also yesterday expressed interest in working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to additionally register the atoll as a biosphere reserve to further protect indigenous wildlife and plant life.

Taking the example of previous declarations of protected eco-systems back in 2009, Rilwan said he remained concerned about the wider effectiveness of implementing and maintaining preserves in the Maldives.

He alleged that government bodies such as the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture had previously allowed timber permits for logging in certain protected areas, even after protected zones had been established.

Rilwan claimed that in order for the government to provide an efficient national strategy for environmental protection, various ministerial bodies dealing with the environment, agriculture and trade all needed stronger methods for collaboration.

“We’re not seeing the agriculture ministry work directly with the country’s trade ministry.  Each one seems to exist like they are their own government,” he claimed.  “We don’t see any national collaboration between [the different ministries].

Rilwan said that he believed this lack of collaboration had led to confusion and occasional contradiction in policies between individual ministries in regards to protecting a specific area or species.

“For instance, you have species such as turtles and whale sharks being the responsibility of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, while the places they inhabit are being dealt with by the Environment Ministry,” he said.

Rilwan claimed that this confusion had been seen to cause problems in the past such as imposing a ban on shark hunting last year.

While some ministries had at the time been working on schemes to offer compensation to fishermen affected by the ban, Rilwan alleged other agencies such the country’s customs authorities were not always doing enough to ensure products derived from shark were not finding their way out of the country.

Spokesperson for the President’s Office, Mohamed Zuhair, was not responding to calls at time of press.

In terms of possible future work with groups like UNESCO in outlining protected zones in Baa Atoll, Rilwan said he believed that the environmentally protected designations imposed on the area would also allow for a increased research into the region’s habitats.

“We do not have a lot of research on these areas commonly available for local people.  Hopefully this protection will hope create awareness about the areas and their inhabitants such as plant life and fungus,” he said.

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Tax tourists to fund conservation efforts, suggests report

Tourists to the Maldives should pay an environmental levy to fund conservation programmes in the country, according to a report produced by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with the College of Fisheries in Mangalore, India, Florida International University in Miami and the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE).

The report, titled ‘User-based Financing of Environmental Conservation of the Maldivian Atolls’, places a monetary value on the use of natural resources for tourism, and proposes the use-tax as a means of compensating for the current “lack of political will and budgetary resources [which] appear to hinder the effective implementation of the above marine protection law.”

Tourism should fund conservation, the report suggests, as the study “found a large disparity between the amount of economic value generated from this nature-based tourism and the amount going into atoll environmental conservation.”

“Even a small tax levied on tourist expenditure on the islands or a direct conservation check-off as a user fee collected from the tourists would help defray the costs of the atoll conservation,” the report suggests.

Specific threats to the marine ecosystem – and the tourism industry – include threats to coral from development activities such as near-shore reclamation, harbor construction, dredging and other island expansion activities.

“Additionally the nutrient enrichment from sewage discharges from the resorts and nearby inhabited islands encouraging algae growth on the reef,” the report notes.

“Over-exploitation of reef fisheries also indirectly impacts the corals. Overfishing removes the herbivorous fishes and these fishes such as parrot and surgeon fishes are integral part of reef as they prevent the over growth of macro-algae on the reef as they deprive corals of essential sunlight.”

Despite the implementation of 31 marine protected areas, high demand for reef fish by resorts and seafood exporters means local fishermen continued to fish in these areas, with little funding allocated to education or enforcement.

“From inception the marine protected area program received only meager financial support from the government, and inadequate staff,” the report notes.

“In the year 2007, the entire environmental conservation program in the country received less than one percent of the Gross Domestic Product while the tourism and transportation sector together contributed about 46 percent.

“The inadequate funding of such programs seriously limits the ability of the management agencies of enforcing protected area boundaries, use restrictions, and penalties and conducting educational programs.”

The report suggests that part of the reason protected areas receive insufficient funding “is the government’s failure to recognise both market and non-market values derived from natural resources.”

“With nature-based tourism there exists a significant amount of economic surplus, which the tourists derive and which does not enter the market process. As a result, the government fails to recover at least a portion of that surplus toward the costs of protecting the resource from its users.”

Currently, visitors spend an average of US$1,666 per person per trip within the country, a total annual spend of US$1,126 million, the report noted, broken down into hotels (35%), followed by food and beverages (23%), recreational activities (19%), miscellaneous (18%) and retail shopping (5%).

If the government were to introduce a user fee of US$35, spread across these or levied at once, then based on current visitor numbers the country would generate US$27.36 million – “more than 85 percent of current environmental expenditure.”

Sim Mohamed Ibrahim from the Maldives Association Tourism Industry (MATI) counters that passing additional taxes to tourists is “not a good idea at all”, as “the Maldives is already seen as an expensive luxury destination, and unaffordable for tourists in the mid-market segment.”

“Resorts already need to apply best practice to maintain and manage natural resources to ensure they remain in business,” he said, favouring education and greater involvement between the industry and the local communities.

Resorts “could do more” to pass on best practice to the community, Sim acknowledged.

“In particular we have to catch the younger generation before they begin dropping waste in the ocean, for instance,” he said.

The report anticipates the industry’s economic counterargument, in that the main challenge faced in implementing such a conservation fee would be “political resistance from local businesses that serve the tourism industry. It is feared that excessive taxes and fees may turn tourists away to other places.”

“Ironically, Maldives’ tourism continues to expand significantly [and] users who greatly benefit from the rich natural resource are foreigners, while the responsibility for sustainable and fair use of such resources largely falls on the local population and the government,” the report reads.

“One way to resolve this disparity issue is to identify funding sources from within those who directly benefit from the tourism experience and the tourism dollars, and to design policies to ensure appropriate money transfer from beneficiaries to those responsible for conservation and regulation,” it notes.

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Tourists attempting to ride whale sharks in South Ari Atoll

Excessive human interaction with whale sharks in South Ari Atoll could eventually lead to the species leaving the area permanently, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project (MWSRP) has warned.

“We have reports of tourists touching and even attempting to ride the sharks,” said Adam Harman from the MWSRP.

In June last year the southern tip of the Ari Atoll region, a year long whale shark aggregation site, was declared a marine protected area (MPA). But recently there has been a large increase in the number of tourists visiting the area.

“The whale sharks have attracted more and more tourists to the area. Sometimes there are 25 boats and over 100 tourists swimming around one shark,” Harman said.

Interaction guidelines were implemented to protect whale sharks in 2008. According to these guidelines, only 12-13 swimmers from one boat are allowed around a shark at any given time, and even then there is to be no contact with the animals. However these guidelines are difficult to monitor since they are self regulated.

According to MWSRP, once a shark is spotted all the boats in the area converge around the shark, ‘caging’ it in. This endangers the animal in many ways and there is a huge possibility of propeller damage.

“If this keeps up we risk losing the sharks. They will move onto other preferential habitats” warned Harman.

“Currently we are getting three sightings a day. We used to have 39 encounters in the same three day period.

“Its hard to say what could happen, but if things don’t change by this time next year, the number of sharks in this area could go down.”

The threat of losing the whale sharks is very real, Harman emphasised. Similar cases have been recorded in Mexico and South Africa, where whale sharks have been known to leave their habitats.

This is not the first incident in South Ari Atoll where marine life have left to seek other preferential habitats. South Ari Atoll Madivaru, ‘Manta point’, was once a popularsite for manta rays.

“At one time you could spot almost 50. Today however, spotting even one is considered lucky,” Harman said.

Tourists converge on a whale shark in a flurry of flippers
Tourists converge on a whale shark in a flurry of flippers

Violent clashes

The clash of ideas has led to hostile confrontations between operators and researchers. In one incident a knife was allegedly used by safari operators to threaten researchers.

Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ibrahim Naeem, confirmed the government had received reports of such confrontations.

“We have urged the researchers and operators to stay out of each others’ way,” he said. “We do get many complaints about people interfering with whale sharks, but since the law doesn’t say its illegal, people still do it,” he continued.

“Divers and safari operators argue that 12 swimmers per whale is not enough, while scientists say that more than 12 poses a risk to the animals. We are having talks with the people involved in the industry and are in the process of reviewing the guidelines.”

The MWSRP have been working closely with the evironment, fisheries and tourism ministries to find a solution to the problem.

Minister of Tourism Dr Ali Sawad said ” We have been working in coordination with the environment ministry, and we are looking for ways to increase awareness and work more closely with divers associations and safari operators.”

Images provided by MWSRP.

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