Made Jaya Rata calls out the vital signs of a healthy baby, as he carefully measures and weighs it – a baby with a carapace, flippers and a beaked head. The information duly noted, this juvenile hawksbill marine turtle is gently lowered into a pool, where it furiously paddles away, ungratefully dousing its caretakers with saltwater.
Here at the Turtle Conservation and Education Centre (TCEC) of Serangan, on the resort island of Bali, the caring efforts of Made Jaya Rata and other concerned individuals are part of a bold venture supported by WWF, the Bali Governor, the Mayor of Denpasar Municipality, authorities and the local community.
These efforts not only bring new hope for highly endangered marine turtles, but also for the local village of Serangan and tourism. Ambitious aims? Perhaps – but for the people of Serangan, it will take efforts of this kind to heal the injuries they have sustained over the past ten years.
Long before humans existed…
Marine turtles could certainly do with a little more help. Millions of years ago, when the closest thing to a human was a primate that could barely stand on two legs, turtles were already roaming and thriving in the oceans. At that time, they had little to fear from getting caught in long-lines set by fishers – sometimes more than 130 km in length – the loss of their nesting beaches or the plundering of their nests for egg consumption. Today, these threats have reached such a scale that they are precipitating some turtle species ever closer to the brink of extinction.
Bali, once a turtle abode…
On many a moonlit night, marine turtles have emerged from the sea to nest on Bali’s beaches. Heaving themselves up the same shoreline that their ancestors used hundreds of thousands years ago, they dig a nest in the sand and deposit about 100 soft, ping-pong ball sized eggs. Having covered up this small treasure, they head back to the sea.
…and then a trading centre
Not so today. Apart from a handful of scattered locations, most turtle beaches have been rendered unusable for nesting because of tourism infrastructure developments. Meanwhile, decades of turtle egg taking has interrupted the replenishment of local turtle populations - and with that, any hope of seeing significant populations of turtles nest on the Island of the Gods in the near future.
But turtles are still coming to Bali. Except that now, they are brought to the island by turtle traders, stockpiled in boats that cruise the Indonesian Archipelago in search of these slow-moving and easily caught creatures. By the late 1990s, over 30,000 marine turtles were being brought to the island and killed every year.
According to WWF, trade is believed to be responsible for a population reduction of 40-80 per cent at many nesting sites in the Indo-Australasian region. This is not only reducing turtle populations, but also straining ecosystems around Indonesia where turtles were once abundant and played a key ecological role.
The religious connection
For years, turtle traders on Bali have justified their illegal activities with one simple, powerful reason: the turtle is an essential component of local Hindu rituals.
Wayan Sukara, the WWF’s sociable and forward-looking field worker, argues that turtle conservation goes well beyond wildlife conservation and religious rites. In his opinion, turtle trade violates the very principles of Hinduism.
“After the caught turtles are unloaded from the boats”, he says, “their flippers are pierced so that they can be strung on a line and carried away. Some stay for as long as one month on the boat, without being fed or cleaned. Is it acceptable that creatures used for holy purposes get such poor treatment?”
But that is not the only ‘unholy’ association between turtles and Hinduism. The turtle trade is notorious for being associated with corruption – the police often turns a blind eye to turtle trading, in return for a kickback. Should Hindu religious practices support such behaviour?
Turtles on the come back
Things are looking up though. After years of lobbying, cajoling and outreach efforts by concerned parties and organizations, successes are trickling in. In 1999, the Government of Indonesia issued a regulation to formally protect the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), the only turtle that had not received protection so far. Locally, some progress was also achieved to iron out discrepancies
between a regional decree and a government regulation that were hindering legal backing of conservation efforts.
Then in early 2005 came a big hit. The Hindu Dharma Council, the highest Hindu instance of Indonesia, officially prescribed that the presence of endangered species, including turtles, in Hindu sacrificial rituals could be substituted with a drawing, cake, or another animal.
This has left the religious arguments used by traders to justify their activity on thin ground. But until this decree makes its way to the millions of Hindus on Bali, turtle trade is likely to continue. Between 500 and 1,000 turtles are still illegally imported to the island each month.
Still more efforts needed
Great progress has been made – so much more is still needed. Until viable alternatives are found to turtle trading, it is unlikely that the activity can be completely stopped. And this is where the Turtle Conservation and Education Centre (TCEC) comes in.
The TCEC is more than just a solution for turtles – it is also a way out for the village of Serangan to deal with its role as a major turtle-trading hub, and to recover from a string of injustices it has sustained over the years.
Back to Serangan
As one of the two major turtle trading centres in Bali, Serangan has a special resonance for turtles. But turtles once benefited Serangan in a different way – by laying eggs on the island’s beaches, attracting thousands of tourists who came to see hatchlings emerge from the nest and head out to sea.
Transformation of an island
Walking down Serangan’s sleepy streets, evidence of these ‘good old times’ are hard to come by. The more than 50 souvenir shops that lined the main street have closed down, and people have moved on to other businesses. How did things get to this?
A string of unfortunate events
In 1994, a powerful and wealthy entrepreneur initiated an ambitious land reclamation project that would not only link Serangan Island to Bali with a road, but also increase the size of the island three times through a vast reclamation project. Rising from the seas, this area would support new resorts and create employment opportunities for people from the island.
“Not all of us were so enthusiastic about the project”, says Pak Griya, the TCEC manager. “For one, few people in the village had the skills to be eligible for employment at the planned resorts. But then, many of us at the village were hired by the entrepreneur to work on the reclamation project, so there were few complaints.”
As one part of the island’s sand banks were dug up to reclaim the land, the island underwent a monstrous transformation that redefined its coastline forever. But that was not the only impact: as coral reefs were blasted away to give way to the new land, the natural habitat of local fish disappeared. The fish soon followed suit, pushing local fishers further away at sea.
And then the turtles vanished. With the beaches eroded from the impacts of the reclamation project, their nesting ground was no longer available. With the turtles also left any hope of bringing paying tourists again to watch hatchlings emerging from a nest.
Thousands of miles from Serangan, another drama was unfolding in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, which would leave even more profound marks on the small island: The reclamation project’s backer was being sentenced to prison. In Serangan, the reclamation project ground to a complete stop.
After the storm, more problems
The people were left with a ransacked ecosystem, shattered dreams of development opportunities and acres of dusty, empty land, covering what had been a thriving coral reef.
Things were bad – but then they got worse. In 2002 and 2005, terrorist bombs rocked Bali, from which the island’s tourism business has yet to recover. People in Serangan felt like their fate had been sealed.
For Wayan, the land reclamation project is a “wound that will not heal”. People have since turned to other small activities to make ends meet, growing seagrass and coral in the waters fringing the ‘new’ island, or selling iced tea and beer to the surfers who still come to ride the evening waves.
A new home for turtles, a fresh hope for Serangan
It is against this backdrop that the dream of the Serangan Turtle Conservation and Education Centre (TCEC) began to take shape. Through the United States Government Overseas Aid program’s (USAID) Bali Recovery Program, WWF Netherland and government actors, a partnership was built and funds were secured to bring back hope to Serangan’s battered economy. Out of this, the concept of the TCEC took shape.
The TCEC is a strange but original creature: the centre harnesses the potential of education, tourism, conservation and research, with a liberal sprinkling of business, to give endangered turtles one more chance on Serangan.
For Ida Bagus Windia Adnyana, who is locally called Pak Guswin, WWF Indonesia’s Marine Turtle Campaign Leader, the four fundamental aspects to the centre include putting a definitive end to turtle trade, by encouraging the public not to consume turtle products (religious use or otherwise), and to generally support turtle conservation; providing turtles for rituals – without their killing – and monitoring turtle size and numbers, so that their use can be strictly controlled and regulated; offering employment opportunities for locals from Serangan; and finally, acting as a watchdog for turtle trade - in Serangan in particular and Bali in general.
Wide-reaching conservation work
The Centre’s conservation reach extends over to the neighbouring island of Java, where efforts are under way to protect a major nesting beach that is regularly pilfered by turtle egg traders. Some of the Centre’s shelled residents hatched right here, their nests safely relocated from Java. Of these, some will be released when they have reached 40 cm or so in length, while others will be provided for religious ceremonies – without being killed.
Turtles under the microscope
But there’s more. Made Jaya Rata and Dwi Suprapti from the local University of Udayana are volunteering their time to monitor the turtles' health. The information they collect is not only shedding light on turtles, but is also feeding into their academic work.
The Centre is an educational experience, not only for university students and visiting school children, but also for everyone involved – including WWF. Pak Guswin’s comment on what has been the most formative and challenging experience in the process of developing the centre.
For Pak Karta, a local craftsman from Serangan, the Centre is a new outlet to sell his work – small carvings made of coconut palm wood, painstakingly covered with fragments from seashells. The carvings, of course, represent the Centres’ famous reptile residents.
In the future, Pak Griya anticipates that other people like Pak Karta will be able to benefit from the Centre’s presence. A playground for young visitors, a cafeteria, perhaps a tourist souvenir and gift shop – all these outlets could mean employment opportunities for locals, while financing the Centre’s conservation activities well into the years ahead.
“But we need to build progressively”, cautions Pak Griya. After all, just a few years ago, the notion of a turtle conservation centre on Serangan, a turtle trade hub, would have seemed like a paradox.
Still inextricably linked
For better or worse, the trajectory of Serangan remains tightly intertwined to the fate of marine turtles. But out of a shell-shocked tourism industry, teetering turtle populations, and the goodwill and enthusiasm of Serangan people who care, something quite beautiful indeed could emerge.
On Serangan, people and turtles may make peace again.
Article by: Marc - Antoine Dunais
For more information about sea turtle conservation in Bali contact:
Dr. Windia Adnyana
Bali Jeff Building
JL. Raya Puputan No. 488
Renon Denpasar 80226
email: firstname.lastname@example.org,ph,ph: +62 8123828010