From the Field

Hawksbill Turtles: A Rare Good News Story for a Species on the Brink

April 13, 2015

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Hawksbill sea turtles were on the brink in the Arnavons until local conservation measures were put in place. Photo: © Bridget Besaw

From a history of violence to sea turtle success: that’s the story of hawksbill turtle conservation told in a new paper appearing in PLOS ONE by The Nature Conservancy’s Rick Hamilton and coauthors.

The largest hawksbill turtle rookery in the Solomon Islands is showing signs of recovery – a striking bit of good news for a species that has faced 150 years of near-constant doom and gloom.

It marks the first recorded recovery of the species in the Western Pacific. After 20 years, data show the number of hawskbill nests laid on the Arnavon Islands, the focus of this paper, increased by 200 percent.

The Arnavon Islands would have in the past been considered an unlikely candidate for sea turtle conservation success. As the authors state: “The history of this rookery is one of overexploitation, conflict and violence.”

And that may be understatement. In the 1800s, headhunters raided the islands to procure turtle shells to trade with European whalers.

In the early 1900s, the British government claimed control of the Solomons, stealing the island from residents. In 1976, with the hawksbill population spiralling into oblivion, the British colonial government declared the Arnavons a sanctuary. But they declared this without consulting local owners, treating them instead as enemies.

Traditional owners responded by burning down government buildings and resuming turtle harvest.

“The hunting pressure at that time was very, very high,” says Hamilton. “Less than 10 percent of turtles being caught were experienced breeders, with most mature females harvested from the Arnavons having just made their first voyage back to the beaches where they were born. In very well-protected rookeries, the majority of females in a nesting season are experienced breeders.”

Hardly the ingredients for conservation success.

A baby hawksbill turtle moves from nest to sea. Photo: © Bridget Besaw
A baby hawksbill turtle moves from nest to sea. Photo: © Bridget Besaw

That changed in 1991, when a beach monitoring and turtle tagging program worked with traditional owners as partners. The results of that program convinced community members that turtles were in decline.

With extensive community involvement and ownership, a marine conservation area was established in the Arnavons. This coincided with the Solomon Islands government passing a national ban on trade in all sea turtle products.

Willie Atu, Project Manager for TNC's Solomon Islands program showing a map of the conserved and threatened areas of the Solomons to the Mothers Union (a group of Kia women who have worked with the Conservancy to raise conservation awareness). Photo: © Bridget Besaw
Willie Atu, Project Manager for TNC’s Solomon Islands program showing a map of the conserved and threatened areas of the Solomons to the Mothers Union (a group of Kia women who have worked with the Conservancy to raise conservation awareness). Photo: © Bridget Besaw

The results: hawksbill populations doubled since the conservation measures went into place in 1991.

“It demonstrates what can be achieved for these charismatic animals when community-based management is combined with national policy,” says Hamilton.

The data from the project was almost lost; at one point, the office housing the paper records from the 1990s caught fire. Locked in a steel filing cabinet, the documents escaped burning. Barely. The papers were all singed around the edges.

“A huge amount of information almost literally went up in smoke,” says Hamilton.

The paper represents the results of 4536 beach surveys and 845 individual turtle tagging histories obtained from the Arnavons between 1991-2012.

Hamilton notes that, while the paper records a dramatic conservation success, it also represents shifting baselines. While the population has doubled since 1991, it is still significantly lower than the historical hawksbill population – estimated using oral histories and records of hawksbill shells sold on the market.

“There was a massive decline for 150 years,” says Hamilton. “If the turtle was a hospital patient, it would be moved from critical condition to the main hospital ward. But, still, this is not insignificant. It is a documented recovery of a critically endangered species.”

A local conservationist monitors a hawksbill while it lays eggs. Photo: © Bridget Besaw
A local conservationist monitors a hawksbill while it lays eggs. Photo: © Bridget Besaw

He says that hawksbills, even in the Arnavons, face key threats. They are still harvested once they leave the protected area on the course of their long migration to Australia. Their nesting beaches are also eroding due to climate change.

He and other conservationists are working on those threats – building on the success of community-led protection.

“I’m a bit of an optimist,” he says. “The turtles are important to the communities here. There’s lots of recognition that protecting these turtles is important. The arena of sea turtle conservation is not always the easiest to work in. It’s inspiring to show that we can make a difference for these animals when we combine local and national efforts.”

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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9 comments

  1. I was scuba diving off the coast of Jupiter, FL on April 9th, 2015 and saw a Hawkbill Turtle that was tagged on the backside of both front flippers. The tags were positioned and looked identical to those pictured in this article. Is it possible this turtle traveled from the Arnavons?

  2. Matt,
    Good news indeed. Quick question, though. Did the number of nests double (a 100% increase) or triple (a 200% increase)? Either way, great results.
    Cheers,
    Tony

  3. Wonderful News !!! Thank you for your support and kindness!!! Great work!!!

  4. glad the 15,000,000 gallons per day into Pacific did not kill all animals President Clinton gave the money for 3 sewage plants, one North county and 2 south day one USA and Tijuana, this San Diego county project but move to the city. But really happened was that money taken by Bush and plants were never built. You can check with Scripps Ocean division or SD fire and Rescue.

  5. Thank you for all your doing for turtles. We have so much to learn from them.

  6. I am such a protector and advocate for Sea Turtles and am teaching my Grandchildren the wonders of the Sea Turtles and their miraculous journeys. We follow Sea Turtle migration and continue to be amazed. Keep up the good work. We look to contribute monetarily and in person every chance we get.