Activists seek answers in Trinidad turtle tragedy

July 10, 2012 - 8:37 PM
Trinidad Sea Turtles Crushed

In this image provided by the Papa Bois Conservation on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, a Ministry of Works employee operates a bulldozer next to destroyed leatherback turtle eggs and hatchlings on the banks of the Grande Riviere Beach in Trinidad. Thousands of leatherback turtle eggs and hatchlings have been crushed by heavy machinery along a Trinidad beach widely regarded as the world's densest nesting area for the biggest of all living sea turtles, conservationists said Monday. Government work crews with bulldozers were redirecting the Grand Riviere, a shifting river that was threatening a hotel where tourists from around the globe watch the huge endangered turtles lay their eggs. (AP Photo/Papa Bois Conservation,Marc de Verteuil)

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — A Trinidad and Tobago conservation group called Tuesday for a prompt investigation into how government work crews crushed leatherback turtle eggs and hatchlings on a remote beach that experts say is the globe's densest nesting site for the endangered marine species.

Witnesses in Trinidad's tiny town of Grand Riviere said they saw thousands of leatherback eggs crushed by heavy machinery over the weekend as workers redirected a shifting river that was eroding the nesting sites and threatening a hotel where tourists stay to catch a glimpse of a tiny leatherback hatchling or a massive adult, which can reach nearly 8 feet long and weigh more than a ton.

The Papa Bois Conservation group said the government allowed the crew to operate a bulldozer and an excavator "without any qualified supervision" on the ecologically sensitive Grand Riviere beach where female leatherbacks nest.

"It is important to investigate how this was allowed to happen, and to find a solution so this won't reoccur," the group said in a statement posted Tuesday to its Facebook page.

The narrow Grand Riviere beach in northern Trinidad is regarded as the densest nesting site for the turtle species on the planet and local residents depend on ecotourism for their livelihoods. Experts say that Trinidad hosts what is likely the second largest leatherback nesting colony in the world, after the nesting beaches shared by Suriname and French Guiana to the south.

Allan Bachan, director of Trinidad's Turtle Village Trust, said the beach was being lost to erosion by the shifting Grande Riviere River and "the community, livelihoods and the viable nesting areas impacted."

Marc de Verteuil, of the Papa Bois Conservation organization, said that because of an unusually long rainy season the river had already eroded a lot of the nesting areas on the beach before the weekend, but that government crews who redirected the river made a bad situation far worse.

Joth Singh, CEO of Trinidad's Environmental Management Authority, told Trinidad Express Newspapers that he believes "only a few hundred hatchlings" were lost in the weekend operation, which he acknowledged was "not done in the best way." It's not clear from his comments to the newspaper if he was also including crushed eggs in his estimated tally. Phone calls to his office went unanswered Tuesday.

But De Verteuil said he clearly saw "thousands" of crushed leatherback eggs on the remote town's beach after driving up from the capital of Port-of-Spain on the weekend. Grand Riviere environmentalist Sherwin Reyz estimated that as many as 20,000 eggs were destroyed during the operation. Reyz and other local residents said they managed to rescue hundreds of tiny hatchlings, but many others were gravely injured and eventually devoured by vultures and dogs.

"I don't think anybody in their right mind could have done something like this," said Reyz, a member of the Grand Riviere Environmental Organization. "Here you are, tractoring up the sand, you seen the young turtles and instead of putting them away in the sand, you still crush them,"

Karen Eckert, executive director of the 40-nation-and-territory Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, said the coastal Grand Riviere community, which is committed to conservation, was "profoundly abused" by the government ministry and the machinery operators.

"The incident will not significantly affect the reproductive output of the beach, and certainly will not accelerate the global decline of leatherback sea turtles. But it does, perhaps, speak volumes on the age-old challenge of lack of communication and empathy between a central government and its rural communities," Eckert said in an email.

Calls made to Trinidad's minister of works went unanswered. There apparently was no immediate government response to the Papa Bois group's calls for an investigation.

For years, successful conservation efforts have benefited leatherbacks in Trinidad, where a growing number of turtle advocates have helped protect the adult nesting females and nesting grounds. Leatherbacks lay about 85 eggs at a time, but less than 1 percent survive to adulthood.

Last year, Trinidad's legislature passed a law fully protecting sea turtles, making it illegal to "take or remove or cause to be removed any turtle eggs after they have been laid and buried by any female turtle." Convicted violators can face a fine of roughly $330 and up to six months imprisonment.

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