Program Boa Vista: General information and background
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.
Start of program: 2008
Species in focus: Loggerhead sea turtle
Location: Boa Vista, Cape Verde
– Conventional beach protection: Patrolling with rangers and volunteers
– New methods of beach protection: Night vision drones, conservation dogs
– Community engagement: Nature conservation hand in hand with the local people
Conventional beach protection: Patrolling with rangers and volunteers
The monitoring and protection of the beaches is carried out by five temporary field stations on site. According to their location, these camps are called Boa Esperança Camp, Canto Camp, Cruz do Morto Camp, Lacacacão Camp and Curral Velho Camp). Each camp is run by a team of a camp coordinator and a field coordinator, except for the Cruz do Morto and Curral Velho camps, which had only one camp coordinator due to the small number of people present in these two camps. The camps are set up from mid to late May and are operational until the end of October.
Since 2009, we have been hiring national and international volunteers to assist the rangers with the beach patrol.
Currently, a total of about 30 km of nesting beaches are directly monitored by Turtle Foundation teams (community-based projects not included; see below) who have protected 9 loggerhead turtle nesting beaches or associated beach areas.
The beaches are patrolled throughout the night, from sunset to sunrise. Patrols are conducted in shifts (minimum 4 hours).
In addition, the Turtle Foundation supports and supervises the two community-based protection projects “Projeto Varandinha” and “Projeto Bofareira”, which are run by the local organizations Associação Varandinha de Povoação Velha (AVPV; Association Varandinha in Povoação Velha) and Associação Onze Estrelas da Bofareira. The Projeto Varandinha protects beaches of a total length of about 8 km in the south and southwest of Boa Vista (Curralinho, a part of Santa Monica, and Varandinha, logistically divided into Varandinha I and Varandinha II), while the Projeto Bofareira patrols about 1 km of nesting beach in the north of the island (from Ponta Antónia to Ponta Altar).
Nesting loggerhead turtle
Beach patrol planning
Read the IMET workshop report here…
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New methods of beach protection: Night vision drones, conservation dogs
Conservative beach patrolling during the turtle nesting times is the first means in providing direct protection to sea turtles threatened by poaching activity. However, this method is expensive in terms of human, financial, and logistical resources, especially if dense monitoring is required. Further, if not supported by accompanying measures, reduction of monitoring efforts would inevitably lead to a rebound of poaching activities, which is especially a big danger if the measures are financed and carried out by NGOs rather than by governmental authorities. Therefore, there is a need for alternative but similarly effective measures that are cheaper, can contribute to significantly reduce efforts for conventional beach patrolling in the future, and which are more likely to be adopted by the local governments. Together with the local nature agencies and the police, Turtle Foundation created a surveillance team for sea turtle protection with alternative techniques (nightvision drones and conservation dogs). This involves a new anti-poaching strategy aiming to overcome the so far prevention oriented method of keeping poachers away from the beaches just by the presence of patrols, to be replaced by a three step approach of detection, intervention, and prosecution of poaching activity. The dog & drone team is explicitly designed not only to protect the beaches that are conventionally patrolled by Turtle Foundation but all beaches of Boa Vista that suffer high risk of poaching activity, especially the beaches in the north and east of the island.
Night vision drones
The drone project team started its activity in August 2018 until end of the season and continued in the nesting season 2019. A professional drone (DJI Inspire 1 V2.0), a thermal night vision camera (Zenmuse XT 640) and supporting equipment was purchased. Operations were focused on around 30 km of high-risk beaches in the east and north of Boavista. About 70 night missions and about 400 single drone flights per nesting season were carried out. Initially, about half of the missions were accompanied by policemen who were ready to intervene and arrest perpetrators in case poaching activity was detected. However, in 2019 a strategy was added involving special ranger patrols in the field during drone operations, connected to the drone operators by radio. While no poachers were encountered or arrested during drone missions, the number of recorded poaching incidents dropped from 235 still in 2017 to 70 in 2018 and further to 19 in 2019. We attribute this to the combined effect of the new law increasing the local protection status of sea turtles and the publicly known, but unpredictable presence of the drone team on the beaches, accompanied by local police. The great efforts in awareness, educational and development programs in the communities and the increasing participation of local drivers in the turtle watching initiatives might have contributed as well. A short communication about the drone project was published by end of 2018 (Reischig et al., African Sea Turtle Newsletter 2018 10: 9–13; Download)
The conservation dog project began in the autumn of 2017 with the purchase of two Labrador puppies, a pair of siblings from a working line of this breed. We named the two dogs – a male and a female – in reference to the scientific names of the two species of turtles found mainly in Cape Verde: Karetta (Caretta caretta, the loggerhead turtle) and Kelo (Chelonia mydas, the green turtle). The Labrador siblings then received their basic training from renowned dog trainer Marlene Zähner in Switzerland. In 2018, two of our Cape Verdean rangers also attended dog handler training in Switzerland, and in June 2019, Karetta and Kelo came to Boa Vista. Dogs and handlers began their service and were initially trained to detect remains of poached turtles on beaches, which will later be expanded to detect turtle meat, for example, at airports, ports, and on boats. In addition, we recognized that poachers often leave items such as scraps of cloth and rope at the scene to which their scent adheres, and which the dogs could use to pick up and track their scent. Therefore, for 2020, we had planned to train this area of operation, known as mantrailing, as well. Unfortunately, due to the Corona pandemic and the associated travel restrictions, this was not possible. In the meantime, the dogs were used for area-wide detection of turtle carcasses from the previous season on the beaches and in their hinterlands to further narrow down the poaching hotspots and detect previously unknown poaching activities. We experienced another setback when Karetta suffered a complicated injury to her hind leg during a walk on the beach in the spring of 2020 and had to be brought back to Switzerland for further treatment. Unfortunately, Karetta is permanently impaired by this accident and can no longer be used as a working dog. She now lives with Marlene Zähner in Switzerland. Recently we were able to buy a young female dog on Boa Vista who shows good potential to become Karetta’s successor. From 2021 we want to continue the conservation dog project with the German dog trainer Marcel Maierhofer and his team from Mantrailing24.
Flight training with the night vision drone. Precise landing on the tarp at night is a particularly delicate maneuver and must therefore be practiced to perfection during the day.
Flight preparations for daytime training
Conservation dogs Kelo (links) and Karetta with their handlers
Sea turtle conservation at sea
The drastic curbing of the formerly massive poaching of sea turtles on Boa Vista’s beaches during the last almost one and a half decades is a conservation success story in Cape Verde. However, sea turtles are not only hunted on the beaches – they are not safe in the sea either. On the one hand, they fall victim to industrial fishing in large numbers as unintentional bycatch. But also the local, artisanal fishing takes its toll, because traditionally sea turtles are not spurned there and therefore, in contrast to industrial fishing, are hunted specifically. It can even be assumed that this problem is currently increasing, precisely because the protection of turtles on the beaches is so successful. As a result, it is now increasingly worthwhile to meet the remaining demand for turtle meat by hunting at sea, which is much more difficult than on the beaches. However, since fishermen at sea are currently not controlled, it is difficult to estimate the true extent of poaching at sea so far. However, we must assume that this is a significant threat to stocks. Since 2018, we have been working closely with the marine conservation organization MarAlliance to address this issue as well. To this end, we are currently pursuing two main approaches:
Exploring the nearshore mating grounds and migratory pathways of the loggerhead sea turtle off Boa Vista
In order to be able to successfully protect the turtles at sea, it is of course important to know where they mainly occur there. The nearshore mating areas are of particular interest. This is where male and female turtles meet in high density in a relatively confined space for a limited period of time, after having migrated there for a long time from the sometimes very distant feeding grounds where they spend most of their lives.
At these places the mating of the turtles takes place a few weeks before the egg-laying until the actual nesting season. Not only do many animals then move in a confined space, but unfortunately in the hormonal rush they also lose their typical alertness and readiness to flee, and they can therefore be particularly easily preyed upon. We therefore need to know and map the mating grounds as precisely as possible in order to know where to protect the turtles. The focus of protection measures such as sea patrols can be narrowed down even further in light of the fact that not all of the mating grounds are regularly used by fishermen, but only those areas where they find their actual target species. In the vastness of Boa Vista’s coastal waters, these areas of overlap between the turtles’ mating grounds and the main activity of artisanal fishing can then be targeted and effectively protected.
An initial approach to mating range research was undertaken by Alexander “Zeddy” Seymour of MarAlliance in 2018. The study used underwater video as well as systematic observations at the water surface on previously defined transects to record the abundance of turtles in the monitoring area. Furthermore, fishermen were interviewed about their observations and the location, type, and duration of their activity. The results provided a preliminary assessment on the use of coastal areas off nesting beaches, including the overlap of loggerhead sea turtle mating areas with artisanal fisheries. A 2018 interim report on the project strongly recommended that local fishermen be better involved in sea turtle conservation. Unfortunately, the project was temporarily interrupted by the tragic death of Zeddy Seymour in the summer of 2019 and the onset of the Corona pandemic in 2020, but was then able to continue with adjustments to the new situation beginning with the 2020 nesting season.
A popular target of poaching at sea are male turtles. Their penis is traded expensively as a supposed aphrodisiac. Since the males, unlike the females, never leave the water, they can only be caught there. The male sea turtles are clearly outnumbered by the females and due to the special breeding biology it is to be feared that with the climate warming the sex ratio will develop further to the disadvantage of the males, until finally too few males are present to be able to fertilize all females successfully. Therefore, the targeted killing of males poses a serious threat to the population. Another project therefore involves researching the whereabouts and migration routes of male turtles using satellite transmitters. A first turtle was still transmitted by Zeddy Seymour in June 2019, and we were able to monitor its migration routes into January 2020. Three more turtles were tagged in 2020 with the help of MarAlliance staff. All three animals continue to provide valuable data into the present (as of May 2021)! Two animals, like the animal tagged in 2019, move over a wide area in the open oceanic waters between Boa Vista and the west coast of mainland Africa. Of particular interest, however, is the behavior of one male that not only has not left the waters around Boa Vista, even after almost a year now, but has barely moved more than a few kilometers from where it was captured since then. We are already very excited about the evaluation of the results!
Increased cooperation with the fishermen of Boa Vista as part of our social engagement
Partnerships with local fishermen can provide a practical way to better interact with fishermen overall and encourage greater participation by fishermen in sea turtle conservation and research. There are approximately 70 fishing boats on Boa Vista that operate in the nearshore waters. In order to involve the fishermen in our project work, we started a cooperation with initially six fishermen who help us with data collection in the sea and with the tagging of turtles. In return, they received safety equipment for their boats and work clothes with individual motifs of sea creatures such as octopuses, whales and, of course, turtles. With this first step, we very much hope to pave a way for trustful cooperation with the local fishermen, which will benefit both the fishermen and the sea turtles.
However, another very big problem for turtles is industrial fishing on the high seas, to which thousands of turtles probably fall victim each year; we have referred to this before in a post (link). We are currently in discussion with a working group to reduce bycatch of seabirds and sea turtles off the coast of West Africa, involving MAVA, BirdLife International, and other international and resident organizations.
The first male turtle caught in the sea in 2019 and fitted with a satellite transmitter. It was named “João” and provided valuable data for half a year.
Release of a freshly satellite-tagged male turtle in May 2020. (Photo: MarAlliance).
Migratory path of the turtle “Djalo” in the first days after the transmitter in May 2020. (Map: MarAlliance)
Male loggerhead turtle in the coastal waters of Boa Vista. Males are easily identified by their long tails. (Photo: Zeddy Seymour, MarAlliance)
An iron frame is equipped with an underwater camera and bait by Zeddy Seymour and then placed on the seabed by a diver (technical term: Baited Remote Underwater Video, BRUV). The camera will film all the animals that eat from the bait in the following hours.
The map shows color-coded focal points of turtle sightings off nesting beaches in eastern Boa Vista along with marine areas used by fishermen. (Map: Zeddy Seymour, MarAlliance)
Sustainable nature conservation does not stand alone, but can only take place in cooperation with the population, which is why we are particularly committed in this area, together with the other two sea turtle NGOs of Boa Vista under the name Projeto Tartaruga. The pandemic did not leave our participatory development project on Boa Vista untouched, and we had to make some adjustments to our program. The income of many families on Boa Vista depends on tourism, and since the number of holidaymakers completely collapsed from spring 2020 onwards, many people suddenly found themselves without an income. While employees in the tourism sector can still fall back on reduced wage payments, self-employed small entrepreneurs such as taxi drivers or restaurant owners are dependent on marginal state support.
Together with our partner organisations, we participated in an online fundraising campaign to support particularly affected families. Furthermore, we were able to create a small counterbalance by employing 61 local rangers and camp staff. The women‘s cooperative TAMBRA in the village of João Galego, which we support, was also directly affected by the pandemic. Women are also part of the illegal trade in turtle meat, as it is usually the wives of the poachers who preserve and sell the meat. By providing guidance on how to produce and market preserved vegetable chutneys and natural soaps, we offer the women of TAMBRA a sustainable alternative to being involved in turtle poaching. Unfortunately, there were no tourists on Boa Vista this year, who are the most important target group for the handmade products.
A great success, however, was the completion of the construction work on the tourism centre in João Galego, financed by our donor MAVA, where the TAMBRA group will produce and sell their products
We supported another women‘s group in the small village of Cabeçã dos Tarafes in running a sewing course. The group was immediately able to implement the first orders for the production of fabric masks. For the future, it is planned to set up a sewing workshop here, where, for example, school uniforms and work clothes will be made.
In addition, we conducted a large-scale beach cleanup campaign in cooperation with village organisations to collect washed-up rubbish from nesting beaches. In this context, we also supported a pilot project to produce simple items from recycled plastic, which was implemented by a youth group. In the coming years, the production technique and the product range are to be expanded in order to achieve marketing here as well.
Another important target group of our social engagement for the protection of sea turtles are the fishermen of Boa Vista. There are about 70 fishing boats operating in the offshore waters. So far, little is known about the extent to which the hunting of turtles in the sea contributes to the decimation of the species. In order to involve fishermen in our project work, we started a cooperation with initially six fishermen who help us with data collection in the sea and with the tagging of turtles. In return, they received safety equipment for their boats and work clothes with individual motifs of sea creatures such as octopuses, whales and, of course, turtles.
The women of TAMBRA
Sewing group in Cabeçã dos Tarafes
A stretch of beach is cleared of plastic waste