By Ruben Perez Perez.
On the forgotten island of São Tomé, sea turtles have been considered a prized food and jewels source since humans landed on the beaches of the archipelago back in the 15th century. These threats have led to a decline of sea turtle population in the region, reaching critical levels. However, in the last decade a group of locals have decided to fight for their future in a community project that is revealing promising outcomes in the long term.
One of the leading minds is Mr Hipólito. He lives on the little island of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea, somewhere in West-Central Africa. Mr Hipólito is 68 years old and has spent the last twenty-two working on sea turtle conservation.
His relation with sea turtles started long time ago. His own father was a sea turtle capturer and he grew up eating sea turtle meat, as did the majority of the kids back in the day. However, he got to understand the key role that sea turtles play in the ecosystem, helping to maintain fish stocks and therefore benefiting fisheries and people, and he was concerned about the future of these endangered animals so he decided to act.
Thousands of sea turtles choose the sandy beaches of São Tomé island to nest every year, turning this island into a great sea turtle hatchery. Mr Hipólito and his team have spent the last two decades fighting to preserve them, collecting scientific data, and trying to change the mindset of their own generation and the following ones. “It was never easy” he will say when asked, “but it pays off”.
Already in April of 2014, sea turtles were declared protected on the island and surrounding waters, furthermore, the Programa Tatô (for the conservation of sea turtles in São Tomé island) currently works hand in hand with ex-poachers and ex-traders to preserve sea turtles. However, poaching is still a major cause of sea turtle mortality on the island, and a lot of work is still needed, but Mr Hipólito and his team are not alone…
Also fighting for the future of São Tomé’s biodiversity are Antunes (left) and Jorciley (right). Antunes is from the capital of the country. He is a second-year student of Biology at the University of São Tomé, and is involved, enthusiastic, and willing to learn and apply his knowledge, to discover more about the richness of, and to conserve, the ecosystems in which he lives. Jorciley is from the small community of Morro Peixe. He is an energetic worker at the Museum of the Sea and Artisanal Fishing where he makes sure of transmitting the legacy of Mr Hipólito to tourists and whoever is interested in listening and learning.
Together, Jorciley and Antunes go school to school all around the island, transmitting their knowledge to the next generations with didactic activities for the children, raising awareness of the importance of preserving sea turtles and offering working alternatives, and kids love it.
The development of a new generation of conservationists is also taken care of. One of them is Teo. He is 3 years old and already knows the name of the five species of sea turtles that swim around his beautiful island. He has never eaten sea turtle meat and grows healthy and happy with his family. He likes the shows of Jorciley and Antunes and is very curious about the sandy cage (sea turtle hatchery) in which Mr Hipolito “plays” often.
Teo likes tourists and understands that sea turtles are more valuable alive than dead. Teo has inherited the legacy of a hard-working team and maybe one day will teach his children the importance of sustainability and conservation.
Good luck, little boy!
Copyright by José Carlos Bernardo Costa
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Copyright of the pictures in the text belongs to Ruben Perez Perez
Copyright for the featured image belongs to José Carlos Bernardo Costa