Of the world’s seven marine turtle species, five are known to occur along the Sierra Leone coast, including: Loggerheads (Caretta caretta), Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas), Olive Ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea), Hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricata), and Leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea).
The by-catch threat and insufficient awareness of locals about laws protecting threatened sea turtle species have severely affected local populations of these species according to Edward.
With support from SOS, the Reptile and Amphibian Program – Sierra Leone (RAP-SL) is working with coastal communities to reduce these threats through awareness raising, law enforcement, beach and by-catch monitoring, and planting of indigenous trees along nesting beaches to prevent erosion. While tree planting is important, RAP-SL considers education and sensitization as the prime tool in order to save the turtles.
Despite the fact that Sierra Leone was threatened by the West Africa Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak, RAP-SL forged ahead with activities that contribute to awareness raising among locals. During the months of the EVD outbreak (September 2014-January 2015), Edward reports on achieving the following objectives:
- The production of 1000 calendars and ten billboards which were distributed in coastal communities raising awareness;
- The purchase of monitoring materials including five digital cameras, measuring tapes, waterproof files, pens and pencils;
- The collection of seedlings of the identified fruit trees within the communities which were nursed in the polythene bags in nurseries established by RAP-SL staff members;
- Establishment of nurseries comprising coconuts, mangoes, oranges, pear and other fruit trees in five communities. The trees, once planted and cared for, are believed to help prevent beach erosion (important nesting sites) in the future, and provide shades, food and fuel wood (especially the local fuel wood trees) for locals. The provision of shade and food on nesting beaches is hoped to serve as incentives to locals for the protection of marine turtles in future;
- Distribution of education materials including brochures, T-shirts, calendars, and billboards and fisheries bill (law regulations to monitor fishing activities) within and beyond project site;
- Training of sixty-three monitors where the trainees were provided with the monitoring materials. Since completion they carry-out their everyday beach and by-catch monitoring exercises within their respective communities;
- The by-catch monitoring effort has so far resulted in recording 70 marine turtles captured in fishing nets, of which 56 were released. Fourteen turtles were found drowned in fishing nets and these were buried;
- The beach monitoring effort has resulted in recording 67 nests of which 11 have hatched and resulted into the sighting and releasing of 428 hatchlings.
Because of a ban on public gatherings in the country as a consequence of Ebola, RAP-SL strategized the community meetings aspect into either one-on-one or small-scale level meetings involving key stakeholders on a per-community basis.
Edward reports that so far five of such meetings were conducted during which copies of the fisheries bill were handed over to the most senior persons at the meetings, while T-shirts and calendars were freely given out to the community leaders and monitors.
In order to create more impact, RAP-SL is also planning on conducting more major meetings immediately once the ban on public gathering is lifted, during which more community members and leaders will be brought together for a general awareness raising forum.
“The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa including Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, coupled with the present harmattan (a cold-dry and dusty trade wind), are causing some setbacks in the project’s progress but we are finding our way through.” says Edward.
“Fortunately for the project implementation effort, no Ebola case has been so far reported from the project’s coastal communities. Up to date, it is still not clear whether the Ebola virus can or cannot thrive in such saline environments as those along the coast.”