Species endangered in paradise

SUN JOURNAL

Bali: Efforts to protect the green sea turtle have run up against economic necessity and tradition on the Indonesian island.

April 17, 2001|By Richard C. Paddock | Richard C. Paddock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TANJUNG BENOA, Indonesia - Time was running out for the green sea turtles. Four of them lay on the concrete floor of a Bali slaughterhouse, their front flippers tied together so they couldn't crawl away. Another lay on its back, unable to move.

An empty shell, still wet with blood, rested in a corner as Soleh the butcher squatted by an open fire, cooking the meat of the animal on skewers. The turtle's destination: a Hindu celebration at nearby Udayana University.

In most of the world, green sea turtles are considered endangered. Here in Bali, they are considered a moneymaker.

Despite the island's image as a tropical paradise, Bali's inhabitants slaughter more endangered sea turtles than anyone else in the world, environmentalists say, bringing the species ever closer to extinction.

The killing is especially callous - the turtles are cut apart while they are alive to make it easier to extract the meat from the shell. The trade in green sea turtles remains a $1 million business despite a law enacted by the Indonesian government in January 1999 making it illegal to catch, possess or eat the animals.

"It's a very old tradition, and it's very hard to change," says Ketut Sukada, a leading advocate of turtle hunting. "It's the wrong solution to stop people from eating sea turtles."

In Bali, local officials created a huge loophole by allowing hunters to catch 5,000 green sea turtles a year. In practice, this meant there was no limit on the number caught because the quota was never enforced. The loophole has since been repealed, but Agus Haryanta, the top enforcement officer for turtles in Bali, estimates that the hunters catch and kill 15,000 to 20,000 a year.

Further threatening the species' survival, resort hotels and other buildings constructed in Bali over the past three decades have overrun most of the beaches where turtles once laid their eggs.

"Some people say the green sea turtle is endangered, but I don't think so," says Widja Zakaria, one of Bali's biggest turtle traders. "We try to hunt the sea turtle only in areas where there is a lot. If the numbers are declining, we move to an area where there are more."

Bali, the only Indonesian island that is predominantly Hindu, enjoys a reputation for friendliness and tranquillity. With its grand tourist resorts and international airport, it has escaped much of the violence that has rocked Indonesia in recent years. But under the surface, Bali has its share of tension.

The bloodletting elsewhere in the country has kept tourists away, and the loss of business has left some Balinese merchants desperate. The average monthly wage is less than $50, and poverty is widespread. Outside the tourist centers, villagers eke out a simple living from terraced rice paddies.

In coastal villages such as Tanjung Benoa, impoverished islanders believe it is their right to harvest nature's resources, whether by catching endangered sea turtles or by using explosives to kill reef fish. One large turtle can fetch the equivalent of more than two months' pay for the average worker.

Recent attempts by the authorities to curb the turtle trade have led to ugly clashes. In February, a mob of turtle hunters burned down the small police station in Tanjung Benoa, minutes from the major resort district of Nusa Dua. Police say they know who was responsible, but haven't made any arrests out of fear for their own safety.

"Balinese are very friendly, but when there is pressure, they will fight back," says Putu Lisa, a World Wildlife Fund staff member who said she was threatened with rape if she continued to campaign for the turtles.

There are seven oceangoing turtle species, and all are listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Indonesia, home to six of the seven species, signed the treaty in 1979.

The only kind the Balinese like to eat is the green sea turtle. It can weigh 400 pounds and measure 3 feet in length. It can stay underwater for 30 minutes without coming up for air and is known to travel 1,400 miles from its feeding grounds to its nesting site.

Sea turtles face numerous hazards. Humans have long hunted the animals for their meat, shells and leather and plundered their eggs for food. At sea, fishing nets trap and drown them. Coastal pollution poisons their habitat, and beachfront construction destroys their nesting sites.

"I think the hotels are more dangerous than the fishermen," says Sukada, a lecturer in animal husbandry at Udayana University. "If it is correct that sea turtles are going to go extinct, it is not because of consumption."

If the species does manage to prosper, the process will be a slow one. Turtles can live to be more than 100, but the female doesn't reach maturity for 20 to 50 years - and even then, may lay eggs only once every two to four years. Out of hundreds of eggs, only a few survive to adulthood.

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