While in Sal last month I was fortunate to be able to meet with a couple of volunteers working for Project Biodiversity. Established two years ago, it’s a non-profit organisation which works tirelessly to protect the turtle population on Sal, one of the Cape Verdean islands most afflicted with the negative impacts of mass tourism.
Sal has a significant number of loggerhead turtles yet the species is globally endangered. The rapid development of tourist infrastructure and large scale hotels on Sal is threatening this species alongside historic threats like poaching and pollution. A team of local rangers, field biologists and volunteers donate their time and expertise to ensuring that these creatures have the best chance of survival. They also run an education programme in local schools to ensure that children get the message about how important turtle conservation is, not just to Sal but also to the global community.
I visited the project, located at the top of the beach near the Rui Palace hotel, to find out more about the organisation’s work. During the nesting season, roughly from June to November, volunteers patrol some of the beaches on Sal Island. They’re looking for hatchlings and if these tiny creatures aren’t heading in the right direction – that’s straight for the sea – then they rescue them and take them back to their base for some TLC prior to release.
Something like 7500 nests have been monitored this year, and at the time of my visit, 984 nests had been rescued and brought to the main hatchery, with several hundred more rescued to other locations. Female turtles typically lay between fifty and a hundred eggs at a time, up to seven times a season. Incubation is between 50 to 60 days. But then, explained volunteers Cristina and Marisol, comes the heartbreaking statistic: they don’t all hatch and on average only one in a thousand hatchlings makes it to adulthood. It’s a tough life being a baby turtle!
The work that Project Biodiversity is carrying out aims to help conserve this species. Each of the hatchlings is counted, the time of birth recorded and also that of their release. The number of eggs per nest is recorded too in an attempt to monitor the health of the species. But despite the non-profit’s efforts, they estimate that many turtles were still killed this year. Volunteers go out with locals knowledgeable about the island’s beaches and also with military assistance, not because of any particular perceived threat but because their presence helps to ramp up the deterrent factor.
Yet even with the best efforts of Project Biodiversity to educate, there’s also an issue with misplaced kindness. One Riu Palace tourist I spoke to explained that he’d seen hatchlings being taken from their holding pen while the Project Biodiversity centre was unmanned and released directly into the sea. But this interferes with their ability to imprint to their natal beach. The hatchlings need to make their own way down to the sea across the sand – that way they’ll be able to find their way back to nest as adults. In addition, hands that are contaminated with sunscreen or other oily substances like handcream can also interfere with the imprinting process. Sal has one other threat to hatchlings taken right to the shore. The waves are huge!
To find out more about the project, visit their website:
During nesting season, it’s possible to visit the project in the afternoons around 5pm. Note that if you aren’t staying at the Riu Palace, you won’t be allowed in the hotel grounds; take the path around the side of the hotel instead. You’ll be able to witness the newest hatchlings make their way to the sea and learn first-hand about Project Biodiversity’s work. If you wish, there’s also the chance to adopt a nest or make a donation to the project, but there’s no hard sell.
With thanks to Project Biodiversity for their time and also for permission to use of the images in this post.