On a patch of beach, miles from nowhere, the sand began to tremble. The slight dimple in the surface was marked only by a stick and an old flip-flop with the number ‘112’ written on it. As the patrol began to dig in, I got my first glimpse of a feisty little creature fighting its way out of the nest- followed by another, and another. Turtle nest ‘number 112’ was the birthplace of 120 green turtle hatchlings, all of whom clambered out of the sand, dodged the dangers of the beach, and made their way to the sea, right in front of my eyes.
I’d arrived in Lamu County, to meet Mike Olendo– WWF’s Coastal Kenya Programme Marine Project Coordinator- and find out more about what it takes to protect these amazing, and mysterious, creatures. Mike greeted me like an old friend, and we packed up the boat and zoomed round the coast, all the way up to Mkokoni camp- our base for the next week.
From this base, Mike and his team engage with local communities, training volunteers to form beach patrols that roam the area during nesting season. These teams record sightings of nesting females and relocate nests that are at high risk of poaching or laid below the high water mark where they are at risk of getting filled with saltwater. One beach volunteer I met, a young man named Said, told me he’d not slept for three nights, as he’d been out on patrol. When I asked him what motivated him to be up for three nights straight, he told me he ‘wanted to be like Mike’ and protect these creatures for his children’s futures.
The team also works with local fishermen. Around 70% of people along the Lamu coast rely on fishing for their livelihoods, and sometimes this meant turtles getting tangled in fishing nets. But by building relationships with the fishermen along the coast, Mike and his team have helped ensure that they are able to cut free any turtles they accidentally catch without any loss to their livelihoods, as WWF will replace any nets they have to cut. The fishermen now come and report any sightings of turtles, acting as ‘citizen scientists’ and helping the WWF team record the numbers and health of the nesting turtles along the coast. One morning, as we gathered in the darkness to head out on the boat, a cheery, young man turned up, having walked for over an hour to report a sighting of a nesting green turtle.
During the course of the week, I got to see the team in action, and the passion and knowledge of Mike, Yvonne, Hassan, Laura, Lily, Lilian, Donald and all the team was clear to see. As Mike told me- it’s not a 9 to 5 job. And as I was woken at 2am to respond to a possible sighting of a critically endangered hawksbill turtle nesting on a beach two hours away by boat, or when I was wading through sea water up to my waist in the pitch dark, or clambering along a makeshift pier to reach a hidden beach in the midday Kenyan sun, it was clear he meant it. With only an estimated one in every thousand hatchlings making it to adulthood, there is no 9 to 5 for the heroes that quietly and determinedly work to protect vital species like the marine turtles of the Lamu coastline.
We’re grateful to players of People’s Postcode Lottery for supporting our conservation and community work in Lamu.
Do you agree we need to protect these amazing creatures? Let us know.