Largest hawksbill turtle rookery is recovering in South Pacific

Photo credit: Nick Caloyianis, National Geographic

Photo credit: Nick Caloyianis, National Geographic

The South Pacific’s largest hawksbill turtle rookery is recovering after 150 years of commercial exploitation.

In the past, the species was targeted by wildlife trade with global catches exceeding 17,000 tonnes in the late 1960s, resulting in the hawksbill turtle being currently listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List. In the Solomon Islands they formed an important part of the community’s culture, subsistence economies and commercial trade, which was mainly responsible for their rapid decline towards the brink of extinction.

Concerted conservation efforts in recent decades, predominantly by the Nature Conservancy and also the Solomon Island government, have reversed the long term depletion of hawksbill turtles that nest on the Arnavon Islands, located within the Solomon Islands.

Together they reestablished the Arnavons’ sanctuary in 1995 which was named the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area (ACMCA) and focused on a more inclusive approach involving community engagement and education. The protected area covers 152 km2 of both sea and land, making it the first and also largest community based marine protected area in the Solomon Islands.

Around the same time, the Solomon Island’s government introduced a national ban on exporting turtle products. This made it easier to address conservation since the economic driver had been eliminated. Local community members were recruited as conservation officers and carried out turtle monitoring programs and enforced the ACMCA management measures.

A study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, analysed 22 years’ worth of monitoring data. Data included both beach counts and turtle tagging data that began in 1991, which provided a valuable insight into hawksbill population dynamics.

Three population parameters were focused on: migration (in terms of where individuals travelled when not in the Arnavons); annual estimates of nest laying and also remigration rates (the percentage of mature females returning to the rookery to breed in a subsequent season).

Results have shown a significant increase in the Arnavons hawksbill turtle populations, providing the first known evidence of such a recovery in the region. The number of nests laid within the ACMCA and remigration rates of turtles have doubled since the establishment of the area’s protected area and the national ban on trading turtle products.

This study provides evidence that community based conservation strategies and policy changes can generate crucial benefits for endangered species.

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Lucy Grable

Lucy Grable

MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills student at Reading Uni | BSc Marine Zoology | Website Editor MARINElife | Zanzibar humpback whale researcher|Marine wildlife enthusiast

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