The impressive Mamanuca Group of Islands – a mix of tiny flat atolls, mainly small hilly islands rising from palm-fringed crescents of gorgeous white-sand beaches in the Western side of Fiji offers many of the world’s rarest experience.
From the romantic sunset over Malolo or simply relaxing under the swaying coconut palms, the choice is endless.
At the commercial heart of Fiji’s beach tourism, the 23 islands of the Mamanucas (pronounced Ma-ma-nuthas) are also home to some of Fiji’s finest beach resorts.
But they are more than just attractive.
For the last six years, 11 of the 20 resorts in the region, together with Mamanuca Environment Society (MES) took up the fight to save sea turtles.
Because it is a delicacy, sea turtles have been in the midst of danger for some time in the Mamanuca.
In fact, these animals also have immeasurable worth as cultural assets – a central element in their respective customs and beliefs.
In a chiefly function, local fishermen are required to present turtles in any traditional gathering to their chief. It is their obligation as demanded by some aged old tradition.
Over the years, thousands of sea turtles are slaughtered in the name of traditional feast but that has changed.
While many around the Fiji Islands are still killing turtles despite the ban under the Fisheries Act because it is declared an endangered species, harvesting turtles in the Mamanuca is considered a sin.
All species of sea turtle are listed as threatened or endangered.
And two species that frequent the Mamanuca waters either for foraging, nesting or just transiting are the Hawksbill (vonu taku) listed as critically endangered and the Green Turtle (vonu dina) listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
All the islands in the Mamanuca Group are nesting beaches for sea turtles and there’s a big hope that the Fiji moratorium on molesting, taking or killing of turtles that came into effect in March 2004 and expires on December 31, 2018 will this magnificent creatures from the brink of extinction.
According to the moratorium, people caught harvesting turtles, molesting them or killing the eggs without a permit may be prosecuted and face three to six months in prison and a fine of up to FJ$500.
Anyone caught selling turtles can be fined FJ$20,000 or face a prison sentence of five years.
Anyone who has ever seen a sea turtle understands the impressive beauty and stature surrounding this gigantic species.
There are many wonderfully hidden secrets surrounding the inner workings of these majestic creatures, their migration ability and their evolved adaption just to name a couple
Many people around the globe have also heard about the plight of sea turtles- that their populations have been dramatically reduced.
Those who know will tell you that sea turtles have existed for more than 100 million years, but today they are struggling for their lives and their future.
The first journey of just-hatched fragile baby sea turtles, struggling to get to the relative safety of the ocean, is often fraught with dangers.
On land they do not possess much grace, and with myopic vision they are at a great disadvantage.
Imagine hundreds baby turtles struggling out of their sandy nest and instinctively head towards the glow of the sea. It’s a sight familiar to many fans of nature documentaries, but seen less often with our naked eyes.
Birds and land mammals swoop down on the baby turtles, reducing by as much as 80per cent the number of sea turtles that make it through their first day alive.
According to research, only about 25 per cent are likely to survive their first year in the ocean and only one of those hundred eggs reached their adult size.
Than there are their most formidable enemy-humans- and most still refuse to understand the key roles sea turtles play in the ecosystem.
Sea turtles have been used for local consumption since time immemorial, providing food (oil and protein) as well as other commodities (bone, leather, and shell) to coastal peoples around the world.
Their prominence as trade items and sources of foreign exchange dates back millennia, whether it was: calipee (the cartilage used for making turtle soup), leather, live turtles, or tortoise shell that was traded.
Sea turtles are unintentionally caught and drowned by shrimping vessels that use trawl nets. Unfortunately for the tangled turtles, the nets are not hauled in fast enough to save them. Gill nets and dredging for oil and gas are also responsible for destroying habitat and injuring sea turtles.
“The ability of sea turtles to survive threats from their most formidable enemy — humans — depends on our willingness to change how we are impacting the environment, theirs and ours,” said Betani Salusalu, the Project Manager for MES.
Sea turtles, he said, play key roles in ecosystems that are critical to them as well as to humans: the oceans, beaches, and dunes.
“If sea turtles were to become extinct, the negative impact on beaches and the oceans would be enormous. When one part of an ecosystem is destroyed, the other parts may follow. Sea turtles are “ambassadors of the oceans”, for conserving these animals means protecting the seas and coastal areas, which in turn means protecting a complex, interconnected world on which human societies depend,” said Mr Salusalu.
About MES and the Turtle project
Formed in 2002- the Mamanuca Environment Society (MES) was endorsed by the late President and high chief from Vuda, Ratu Josefa Iloilovatu Uluivuda to protect the stunning marine and terrestrial environment of the Mamanuca Islands.
The mission was to promote awareness of the need to protect the marine and terrestrial resources of the Mamanuca Region and to assist, through partnerships with local communities, tourism operators, government and non–government organizations, in the environmentally sustainable development of these resources for the benefit of present and future generations.
The Society in 2006 embarked on a Turtle Conservation Project amongst its existing list of projects, in recognition of the plight this vulnerable creature is facing, and also because of the many breeding or nesting grounds being discovered in the Mamanucas.
Photo Credit: Kurt Amsler