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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Tracking Turtles in the Western Pacific

Pacific Islands, Micronesia

For two years, Peace Corps Volunteer Sarah Klain helped lead efforts for sea-turtle conservation in the Pacific Island country of Palau. With local partners, she researched and tracked the marine reptiles and encouraged educational efforts to protect turtle populations.



Hi, I'm Sarah Klain. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Pacific Island nation of Palau from 2005 to 2007.

I worked with Palauans researching sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles, and dugongs—large marine mammals related to manatees. Palauans possess remarkable local knowledge about the marine life in the sea around their islands. Here, I'm recording turtle nesting data with my colleague Joshua Eberdong.

I tried my best to be a bridge between Palauans and a global network of people dedicated to conservation.

I worked closely with Joshua. In the late 1970s, Joshua hunted crocodiles for a Japanese company.

These reptiles were fairly common in Palau at the time. He hunted the crocodiles, like this one, until there were so few remaining that the hide business ended in Palau. A few years later, Australian crocodile biologists hired Joshua as their local guide for a population survey of the animals.

When Joshua learned about the scientists' work, he felt responsible not only for having brought Palau's crocodiles to the brink of extinction, but also for bringing them back. Joshua built a crocodile sanctuary in his backyard.

Over the past 15 years, he has raised hundreds of crocodiles from eggs and released them into the mangroves to boost the depleted wild stocks. Given his experience with marine reptiles and his excellent fieldwork skills, Joshua now coordinates the Palau Marine Turtle Conservation and Monitoring Project. Here he's recording the location of a hawksbill turtle nest in the Rock Islands.

Two of the world's seven species of sea turtles—green and hawksbill—lay their eggs in Palau. In the Pacific, hawksbill turtles, like this one, called ngasech in Palauan, are rapidly approaching extinction, primarily due to the hunting of the animals for their meat and shells, the collecting of their eggs for food, and the destruction or disruption of their nesting habitat. The hawksbill is named for its sharp beak, which enables it to feed on sponges that grow on corals. (Photo courtesy of Caroline S. Rogers.)

Internationally recognized as an endangered species, green turtles, called melob in Palauan, are faring only slightly better. This kind of turtle's fat is green, due to its diet of sea grass and algae.

Green turtles are a favorite food among many Pacific Islanders.

Sea turtles, like this green sea turtle hatchling, require 25 to 35 years to reach sexual maturity—the age at which they can reproduce. Their breeding season occurs only once every two to five years. A high number of turtles must survive every year to enable the species to continue.

Sea turtle numbers are declining in many places in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. Palauan fishermen report seeing fewer turtles now than in the past. Palauan women say that toluk, which is traditional women's money made from the shell of hawksbill turtles, is smaller and thinner, because of the smaller size of the remaining hawksbills.

Sea turtle conservation should be a priority because turtles are important as a food source and in the culture of Palau. Also, sea turtles are a resource shared with other countries. More information about these animals is necessary for effective management. To address these issues, the Bureau of Marine Resources in Palau initiated the Marine Turtle Conservation and Monitoring Project, coordinated by Joshua. We built a national database documenting observed nests and tagged turtles.

This database was linked to a geographic information system so we could map where turtles nested and where they were tagged. We monitored beaches ...

... to identify major nesting sites and to address questions such as how many turtles nest at different beaches, how many eggs are deposited in a season, ...

... and how these numbers change over time. Beach monitoring proved that the poaching of nests—people taking eggs from sea turtle nests—is a major issue in Palau. It is against the law there to harvest turtle eggs. We mapped where the poaching occurred, which helped to prioritize enforcement efforts.

Turtles nest more in Palau's Southwest Islands than anywhere else in the country.

Few people live on the remote Southwest Islands , ...

... which are rich in wildlife. Conservation officers regularly patrol Merir and Helen Islands. They have recorded thousands of turtle nests and caught and tagged hundreds of turtles.

Joshua and I, with other conservation officers, conducted in-water sea turtle surveys to estimate the relative abundance of sea turtles. We used a methodology called HUNT, which stands for h aphazard, u nmarked, n onlinear t ransects. This involved spotting a turtle ...

... catching the animal ...

... and measuring it, ...

... taking a tissue sample, then tagging its flipper, and releasing it.

Using information collected with a hand-held global positioning system, we mapped the results of the surveys.

We took as many tissue samples as possible from the turtles that we caught. DNA analysis of skin samples tells us how the turtles in Palau are genetically related to turtle populations in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other neighboring countries.

We applied titanium flipper tags on turtles so we could collect information on their behavior and biology. Tagging and recovery of the tags can assist in learning more about sea turtle reproductive biology, movements and migrations, residency at certain locations, and growth rates.

We had four exciting tag recaptures, including a turtle tagged in Palau and then caught in the Philippines, and another recaptured in Indonesia. Recently, a turtle tagged in Palau was caught and released in Okinawa, Japan. Palauans had suspected that their turtles migrated long distances, which was scientifically confirmed with tag recaptures and satellite tracking.

Joshua and other conservation officers mounted satellite transmitters on sea turtles. Two hawksbill turtles with satellite transmitters were tracked but did not stray far from Palau's main islands.

The green turtles that nested in the Southwest Islands of Merir and Helen were tracked from Palau to the Aru Islands of Indonesia. Satellite tracking and flipper-tag recovery prove that these turtles inhabit not just Palau, but also the waters of other countries in the region.

The turtle project office also worked with the Fisheries Observer Program. Fishery observers were trained to record turtle by-catch—turtles caught unintentionally—in the longline fishing industry. Longlining uses short lines with hooks attached to a longer main line. The gear often catches and drowns sea turtles. The observers were shown how to tag turtles' flippers as well as how to de-hook and resuscitate turtles that come close to drowning. Based on longline trips that were observed, Palau has a remarkably high rate of sea turtle–longline interactions.

Sea turtles face numerous threats. Over-hunting ...

... the impact of fisheries, egg poaching, coastal development, climate change, and pollution and diseases contribute to declines in sea turtle populations.

Science alone cannot save endangered species. Education and awareness are necessary for any successful conservation program. Joshua and I made several school and community presentations and collaborated with the Palau Conservation Society in their environmental education efforts.

We also involved students studying in the marine science program at Palau Community College, who worked with us to tag and release turtles.

We made a poster that is now in the arrival area of Palau's airport. It informs tourists that it is illegal to take any products out of the country that are made from sea turtles.

Our sticker campaign, which proclaimed, "We are Turtle Friendly," promoted businesses on the island that do not sell turtle products. The opening event for this campaign, held at a conservation-oriented dive-and-tour operation, included an arts-and-crafts display of alternatives to hawksbill-shell jewelry. Due to its relatively pristine reefs and forests, as well as numerous protected marine areas, Palau has earned an international reputation for being a leader in conservation in the Pacific.

Many Caribbean countries have adopted the saying, "A turtle live is worth more than a turtle dead"—an idea that can be applied to Palau, since the island's economy largely depends on tourism. Turtle harvesting is offensive to visiting tourists, and sea turtle harvests produce income for only a few people, who could earn a living in other ways. Live sea turtles contribute to tourism revenue. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Davidson.)

Joshua made several recommendations to the Palau National Congress to improve Palau's sea turtle conservation laws. He advised the government to increase the fine for harvesting turtles out of season and for taking undersized turtles. He supported prohibiting the commercial sale of turtle products and a five-year moratorium on hawksbill turtle harvests. He suggested ways to minimize human impacts on turtle nesting.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with and learned from Joshua, one of Palau's foremost hunters-turned-conservationist. His knowledge and dedication inspired me. I'm proud of our accomplishments and hope the turtle work and other conservation efforts continue.

I have returned to the United States, but my thoughts often drift back to my home for two years, where sea turtles crawl ashore on beaches lit only by the moon, crocodiles hunt crabs and fish in the mangroves, and dugongs graze on sea grass.

The survival or extinction of these amazing creatures in Palau rests upon the action or inaction of people. I encourage you to learn more about these animals around the world, why they are threatened, and how you can help restore their abundance. I continue to be motivated by the words of my marine conservation hero, Carl Safina, who wrote: "Where there's life there's hope, and so no place can inspire more hopefulness than the great, life-making sea, home to creatures of mystery and majesty, whose future now depends on human compassion, and our next move."

* Photograph of sea turtle and distant diver courtesy of Kevin Davidson.
Photograph of hawksbill turtle courtesy of Caroline S. Rogers.

About the Author

Sarah Klain

For two years, Peace Corps Volunteer Sarah Klain helped lead efforts for sea-turtle conservation in the Pacific Island country of Palau. With local partners, she researched and tracked the marine reptiles and encouraged educational efforts to protect turtle populations. Watch her slide show, Tracking Turtles in the Western Pacific.