The role of community participation in marine turtle conservation

31 May 2011 | News story

On April 21, 2011, the Quang Tri Department of Agricultural and Rural Development (DARD) informed IUCN Vietnam Office about the successful rescue and release of a hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) the day before.

Local people had discovered that a restaurant was illegally keeping the turtle for sale in Vinh Linh Commune. They immediately reported this to the Sub-Department of Capture Fisheries & Resources Protection (Sub-DECAFIREP), which sent a group to confiscate and release the turtle back to the sea. The hawksbill has been assessed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered after suffering a worldwide population decline in excess of 80% over its last three generations. Sub-DECAFIREP staff informed the restaurant owners that any trading, storing, and consumption of a highly threatened species is illegal and that the turtle needed to be released. Before releasing the turtle, the animal was tagged for future identification and scientific study.

This case follows a 5-year communications campaign to improve local awareness and support for marine turtle conservation in Quang Tri. This work has been led by sub-DECAFIREP, technically supported by IUCN with financial support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Project activities included training for local fishermen and schoolteachers in the importance of marine turtles, their habitats, and their legal protection, establishing volunteer groups to monitor protection of nesting beaches, student quizzes, contests, and beach cleaning. About 500 fishermen and 2,000 students have participated so far.

The release of this hawksbill turtle is a vivid illustration of a statement by Mr. Hoang Dinh Lien, Deputy Director of Quang Tri DARD in March 2011:

“What is positive is that Quang Tri Sub-DECAFIREP has managed to develop good relations with the community and we have succeeded in changing attitudes toward marine turtles. Whenever turtles are caught or sighted the department is now called.”

On May 5, 2011, IUCN was informed of a similar success in Quang Ninh Province where IUCN has also supported a marine turtle rescue volunteer program. In this case, Mr. Nguyen Van Ha and his family caught a female marine turtle and planned to sell it. Local authorities explained the law to the family and persuaded them to hand over the turtle. It was a huge green turtle (Chelonia mydas), which is assessed as Endangered on the Red List. It had a diameter of 80 cm, length of 90 cm, and weight of 90 kg! The turtle was released back into the sea in the presence of local fishermen, provincial government officials, and Mr. Mai Tuan Phuong, Vice Chairman of the District People’s Committee. Over the past few years, many marine turtles have been released in Quang Ninh and Quang Tri. Please see the video clip “release the marine turtle in Co To in May 2011”.

These examples show that sustained communication and outreach does change attitudes and behavior and can play an important part in conserving highly threatened wildlife. However, it is also clear that communications and outreach can only be part of the solution. Or to put in another way: it is necessary but not sufficient. Without providing stronger disincentives, fishermen will continue to capture marine turtles and restaurants will continue to sell them, even though they know that it is against the law.

Current approaches provide insufficient disincentive to capturing and selling marine turtles. As these examples show, local authorities typically “inform” consumers about the law and “persuade” them to release turtles. The effective conservation of marine turtles therefore requires a much tougher response from local authorities to complement the outreach and communications work.