Five species of sea turtles roam the waters around the Islands of Cabo Verde: Green turtles (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), and Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta). Only the loggerhead turtle nests regularly on the islands. The local nesting population of loggerhead sea turtles is the third largest population in the world after the nesting populations of Oman and Southeast Florida, and is the largest nesting population in the Eastern Atlantic. It is estimated that around two thirds of the nesting activity on Cape Verde occurs on the Island of Boa Vista.
Although all species of sea turtles are officially protected under the laws of Cape Verde, they are heavily exposed to multiple anthropogenic threats. The primary threat is the slaughter of female loggerheads when they come ashore to nest The vulnerability of the turtles on land in combination with the easy accessibility of the nesting beaches, rapid increase of the local population since the early 2000s, and the lack of will and/or capability to enforce existing laws by the authorities further exacerbated the problem. The slaughter is particularly brutal and cruel, with turtles sliced open to remove meat and internal organs while still alive. This is usually done before the females even nest, thus killing all her progeny as well. Additional threats include the destruction of their nesting beaches by uncontrolled construction as part of rapid tourism development, nest poaching, trash accumulation in the water and on the beaches, targeted catch and by-catch of turtles at sea, and boat collisions. This situation has resulted in the United Nations Environment Program identifying Cape Verde as the conservation priority for loggerhead turtles (UNEP, 2002).
A special situation on Boa Vista is created by increasing tourism activities; according to official figures, over 1.6 million overnight stays were recorded on Boa Vista alone in 2016, representing more than 40% of all overnight stays of Cape Verde. Mass tourism is resulting in variety of additional problems for the sea turtles including nesting beach destruction by development projects, light pollution, motorized traffic on the beaches (quad bike tours), and poorly managed turtle watching activities.
Turtle Foundation started its conservation project on Boa Vista in 2008 after being informed in 2007 by a local NGO that about more than 1200 turtles were slaughtered on Boa Vista’s beaches in that year, and after being asked for help in this desperate situation. In 2008, as a result of Turtle Foundation’s patrols and protection, the number of animals killed on Porto Ferreira Beach alone was reduced from 600 in 2007 to 60 in 2008. In 2009, the total mortality on Boa Vista was estimated at 220 animals. By gradually including so far unprotected beaches, turtle mortality could be further reduced in the following years. On beaches protected by Turtle Foundation, between 2011 and 2017 5–21 turtle mortalities were recorded annually. However, these figures do not reflect the true extent of the situation, because they do not include major beaches monitored by other NGOs, remaining beaches not yet monitored at all, and only consider documented poaching incidents. Turtles taken unnoticed from the beaches and slaughtered elsewhere were not included. Further, general poaching activities started again to increase during the last few years.
Since the beginning of its beach patrolling activities on Boa Vista, Turtle Foundation took up increasing effort to accompanying programs to ensure sustainability of its conservation project. These programs include environmental education activities, programs to identify and to create alternative income possibilities, and advocating activities among the local government and other stakeholders. However, there is still a long way ahead of us until the loggerhead sea turtles can nest safely on Boa Vista’s beaches and the depleted turtle population can recover.