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Transcript: Putting the World in World Sea Turtle Day

Rich Press: June 16th is World Sea Turtle Day, and needless to say this is a very big day for us here at NOAA Fisheries. And so, for today’s podcast we’re going to hear from someone who really puts the world in World Sea Turtle Day. Manjula Tiwari is a sea turtle scientist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and she works all over the world helping communities that live near sea turtle nesting beaches to protect their sea turtle populations. Among the species that Dr. Tiwari works on are Pacific leatherback sea turtles, which are, perhaps, the most endangered sea turtles out there.

I started my conversation with Dr. Tiwari by telling her that she has my dream job. I mean, come on, she travels all over the world to work on what I imagine are some very beautiful beaches.

Manjula Tiwari: So, Rich, I must comment first on the dream job part of it.

Rich Press: Okay.

Manjula Tiwari: It certainly is a dream job if you enjoy discomfort. [Laughter] You know, if you have sand fly bites that fester for months, you know, where your doctor back in the States throws his hands up in despair and says, “I have no idea what this tropical disease is that you’ve come back with.” Or, you know, you’re lost in a boat in the middle of the night in a rough ocean where nobody knows which direction land is, because somebody forgot the GPS, and even fishermen you run into in the middle of the ocean tell you, “Just follow the rising moon and you'll find land,” and it doesn’t help.

And, you’re walking 50 kilometers of beach in less than 24 hours. I’m not sure that would sound very glamorous to everybody.

Rich Press: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t sound easy.

Manjula Tiwari: It's very adventurous for sure.

Rich Press: So you work in very remote places in Africa, also India, and the Middle East, and many parts of Asia. And when it comes to Pacific leatherback turtles your biggest project is in Papua, Indonesia. So, first of all, where is Papua, Indonesia, and why are the nesting beaches there so important?

Manjula Tiwari: Papua essentially sits above Australia. And, what is unique about the Papua leatherback population is that it is the last, largest remaining stronghold for leatherbacks in the Pacific. For those who may not know, leatherbacks in the Pacific have declined over 90 percent, and the populations in the eastern Pacific have declined dramatically. The once large nesting population in Malaysia is now considered functionally extinct. So really, our glimmer of hope and our area of focus is the Western Pacific. And within that region about 75 percent of the nesting takes place in Papua. So we’ve had a long-term collaboration in Papua, Indonesia with the goal being on the nesting beach to increase hatchling production, or as we like to rephrase it, no hatchling left behind.

Rich Press: Okay. So your goal is to increase the number of hatchlings that leave the beach?

Manjula Tiwari: Yes.

Rich Press: So why does NOAA care about sea turtles in such faraway places?

Manjula Tiwari: It's important for NOAA because these leatherbacks from Papua, Indonesia are found in U.S. waters. And they’re found up and down the U.S. West Coast in California, Washington, Oregon. And although they’re foraging in U.S. waters, they’re nesting in Papua, Indonesia and the mandate is to protect the source population where these leatherbacks come from. So a lot of effort and time has been invested in protecting, in trying to protect the beaches in Papua, Indonesia.

Rich Press: It's amazing to me the migration that these animals undertake. Your colleague, Scott Benson, I did a podcast with him about leatherbacks last year and he told me that Pacific leatherbacks have the longest migration of any – I think he said any air breathing, aquatic vertebrate in the world, including even the great whales.

Manjula Tiwari: Yes. Yes. Yes. They come from very faraway places in the Western Pacific and really, because sea turtles are a highly migratory species, they make the world a very small place, because they bring together all of these nations by crossing these long distances and the waters of many different countries. And what they essentially require is all of these governments and countries collaborating to conserve them and their migratory routes, and all of the different parts of the ocean that they visit.

Rich Press: You said that they bring people and nations together, and that’s exactly what you’re doing when you work with communities that live near the nesting beaches. And one thing I find really interesting about what you do is you’re a scientist, but in many respects, we already understand scientifically the threats to sea turtles, but the real challenge here isn’t about the science. It's about the people. And in your case, it’s about getting buy-in from local communities. So talk to me a bit about that. What are some of the challenges you face in getting people to work with you?

Manjula Tiwari: You’re very right, because yes, from a science point of view, I guess within quotes, it’s “simpler,” but a more evasive, or the more elusive, rather, factor is getting the community buy-in. That has been a big challenge, and it is their land, and so it’s like somebody showing up in our house and telling us what to do. So we have to deal with that, and in comes their perception of why the leatherback populations have declined. 

You know, there was an Indian researcher who came in the 1980s to take a look at the beaches and assess the population. He was a scientist. He came on to the beaches, counted the nests, put tags on them, and went back home, and didn’t have funding to return again. But in the meantime, the local communities saw that the number of leatherbacks coming back have decreased and they thought that this Indian researcher had gone home and with a big magnet he had drawn all of their turtles away, because he had put metal tags on them.

So you know, essentially my point is that we are dealing with a very different type of mentality and psychology, and that brings in huge challenges as to how we sort of include them in our understanding of how these leatherbacks should be saved.

Rich Press: I imagine these people haven’t had very much exposure to modern science, so when you see someone put these metal clips on the turtles and then they stop showing up, I guess, you know, it’s a perfectly rational to think that the metal clips had something to do with it.

Manjula Tiwari: Yes.

Rich Press: So, how do you get the buy-in that you need from people?

Manjula Tiwari: There are many ways of getting buy in and from my experience around the world, some communities are just more challenging to work with than others. Some communities I find, especially some that I worked in Africa, in Sierra Leone, I find it extremely humbling that they’re so open to us coming in and suggesting conservation measures or requesting them to stop eating turtles and taking their eggs. And I sometimes think it’s easier to do it in these communities than in a developed world.

But on the other hand, there are other communities, like in Papua, where it’s much more challenging and that’s because, partly I think, because of the history of the project. You have to understand also that it’s a learning experience when you come in to a place, into any community. It takes time to understand the mentality for the conservationists of the community and vice versa as well.

So for us I think it’s taken many years to come around to a point where we think we’re making progress with the community. And I think part of the problem was that the community felt in the beginning that there was so much money going into the leatherbacks on the nesting beaches, and nobody cared about them or their welfare. That is something that we are now trying to reverse. Our approach has been that the whole community should benefit from the presence of the leatherback nesting beach project, and making that link between conservation and community welfare has become a high priority of the project.

Rich Press: In terms of assuming that you do get buy-in from these people, what concrete steps can people on those beaches and those communities take to help with the turtles? What are you asking them to do differently?

Manjula Tiwari: It's interesting that you asked that question, because it’s very timely, because we are at this very moment in the process of drafting what our expectations are from the community and what we give them in return for meeting those expectations. Because we’re not really in the business of community support. We’re in the business of leatherback conservation. But we want to make sure that the community receives benefits that are proportional to the support that they are providing us on the nesting beach. So we’ve essentially come up with four expectations that we have.

One is, of course, access to the beach since they are the owners of the land. Two is that they don’t take turtles, they don’t collect the eggs. Three is that they don’t disrupt the work on the nesting beaches, because that has happened in the past. And the last expectation is that they participate as well in the protection of nests on the nesting beaches. So whether they’re putting out pig traps, to try and catch the pigs that are accessing the beach and destroying the nests, or whether they are helping us build little enclosures around nests, or helping us build hatcheries. So those are the four main expectations that we have from the community.

Rich Press: Great. And so I suppose part of the benefit that the community is getting are jobs. Is that right?

Manjula Tiwari: Yes. Part of it is, but of course, you can’t hire the whole community, so the other benefits are things that would affect a lot more people within the community, whether it’s education, whether it’s finding good agricultural techniques for them so that they can then market their products in the local towns. Also providing health services to some of these communities, and that’s really important for them, because these are extremely remote places if you think, you know, the fastest boat can get you there in about six hours from the nearest town. 

So those are the kinds of larger benefits that we are hoping and working on providing to the community so that we can get their support and buy-in for the nesting beach work. And that I think is really, really important and essential for the long-term. Our goal is eventually to work ourselves out of a job and have the local community manage their resources. I think, if we can reach that goal we would have made a huge difference in the conservation of these leatherbacks on this nesting beach.

Rich Press: That was NOAA Fisheries biologist and sea turtle expert, Manjula Tiwari, who can be just about anywhere right now. 

For more information about leatherback sea turtles, and about what NOAA Fisheries is doing to protect them, and also about what you can do to help protect them - yes, you as a seafood consumer can play an important role by buying sustainably caught seafood.

Check out the podcast page on our website. That’s www.fisheries.noaa.gov/podcasts. You’ll also find some pictures of leatherbacks there. You’ll be amazed at how large they are. They’re huge.

Thanks for listening. Join us again next time for more stories about ocean life and ocean science. I’m Rich Press and you’re listening to On the Line.


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You have been listening to the NOAA Fisheries’ Podcast, "On the Line". Join us next time for a firsthand look at the people and the science behind managing our nation’s fisheries. For more information, visit NOAA Fisheries at www.fisheries.noaa.gov.

"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.
 

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