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.
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.
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.”
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.”