Turtle Workshop 1

Summarised (and somewhat paraphrased) Conversations from our first workshop 21 June 2021

Participants: Ronda Green (WTA), Maree Kerr (WTA), Leah Burns (WTA), Jennie Gilbert (Turtle Rehab Centre, Cairns), Noel Scott (University of Sunshine Coast), Nicole Murnane , Sian Williams (Gili Eco Trust, Lombok, Indonesia)

Ronda: We have a small group today, as most participants would prefer to join the second workshop tomorrow rather than join in what is the middle of the night in some of their time zones. Starting off with the problem of poaching, I hear it is happening in both Australia and Indonesia.

Jennie: Yes, the egg gathering in Far North Qld is largely for Indigenous families in FNQ and Torres Strait Islands, but there is a major problem of turtle meat being harvested for the black market, and although it is said to be part of the Indigenous tradition it is done with guns and motor boats, which is not part of that tradition, nor is selling on a black market. There are other Indigenous people fighting against this, and employment of Indigenous rangers to patrol and police conservation rules, but it is very difficult to find and control activities in such a region.

Ronda: Jennie, what do you advise doing about the illegal hunting?

Jennie: I’ve been knocking my head against a brick wall on this for ages. Greg Hunt and Warren Ensch tried to get some legislation passed on illegal hunting but it was quashed. There are people sitting in parliament who have not been up here and have no idea what is happening. They say it is traditional hunting, and I’m all for traditional hunting but this is really not traditional.

Sian: egg-gathering in Lombok is a problem, we haven’t seen much harvesting of turtle meat. I’ve seen dolphins and hammerhead sharks in fish markets but not turtles

Ronda: I’ve heard of turtle and chips sold to tourists in places like Bali many years ago. Is that less of a problem nowadays?

Sian: Yes, tourists are now better aware of the problems and less likely to support it. But there are very lax laws and very little enforcement, and even before lockdown there was a lot of illegal gathering.

Ronda: I suppose also there is more awareness in Lombok of the importance of turtles to tourism, because of the fame of the diving at the Gilli Islands, than there would be in some of the other parts of Indonesia

Sian: Yes, that is very likely. There is not much use of turtle meat, but when turtle eggs are found they are often gathered and brought to tourism sites where tourists can pay to see the young hatchlings and think they are doing a good thing by helping to release the young turtles into the sea. But it doesn’t help the turtles.

Ronda: yes, so I’ve heard. Noel and I were going to include an Pacific example in our UNWTO report on sustainable wildlife tourism in Asia and the Pacific, where eggs were being collected and the young turtles released, to help early survival, but were advised against that. What are the main problems with that? Is any of it helping conservation?

Sian: I don’t know of any programs for monitoring after their release. There are a lot of opportunities in Bali for tourists to pay to release just one young turtle, in the middle of the day with lots of boat traffic, and think they re doing something to help. A similar enterprise sported for a while here in Lombok. I don’t know if it’s worked in other places around the world. The hatchlings are usually kept for about a year, with a fairly high survival rate for that year, but we don’t know about their survival after release as there is no research on this. We have been trying to explain to the Indonesian government that turtles during that first year need to be able to dive to develop their lungs, not to spend the whole time in shallow water. They are also crowded in the containers, susceptible to infection and nibbling and biting each other. Then they are released in the middle of the day, aren’t able to free dive down deeper, and don’t know how to catch theirown food.

Jennie: Another problem is that they take them as eggs straight to a hatchery. When they hatch naturally on the beach it takes them from 2 to 6days coming up through the sand to the surface and they’re imprinting the whole time. That’s especially important for the females, to imprint on the kind of sand and degree of salinity they’ll seek out when they’re ready to lay their own eggs. They’ll have no idea what beach to return to or what kind of conditions to seek out.

Sian: Yes, and they don’t even let them walk down the sand into the sea at release time, the way they would if they had hatched out in the beach sand. And I don’t think imprinting would work anyway on turtles that are now 12 to 18 months old

Jennie: That’s right. They have to do their really important thing of 2 to 5 days sand and salinity imprinting on hatching, they can’t do it later in life. Tourists pay their $2.00 to carry a little turtle down to the water and release it, thinking they are doing the right thing but really sending it to its death, and females that do survive have no idea what to do about nesting later on.

Ronda: How is it done in Australia? I remember when we were running a workshop in Darwin that I received an invitation from a national park ranger to watch the release, at night, of young loggerhead turtles, but unfortunately couldn’t make it.

Jennie: collecting eggs is not allowed in Australia. What sometimes happens Is nest re-location, if a clutch is laid in a spot where the eggs are not likely to survive, such as likely to be flooded. Another hole is dug in a safe spot on a beach and the whole clutch is transferred. They may have had a nest that irrupted but a few were somehow left behind and they were releasing those ones.

Sian: People who collect turtles here say they’ve been doing it for generations and there are still plenty of turtles so they are doing the right thing, but don’t realise the reason we have a healthy population of turtles is because the Gilli Islands population was healthy 25 years ago, so yes there are still plenty of turtles around but the situation with young turtles is different now from the way it used to be.

Ronda: What about disturbance of nesting turtles by lights, both with static lights and people walking on the beach? I’ve heard it’s a problem in the Middle East regions. Is it in Australia and Indonesia also? I know it’s well-controlled at Mon Repos near Bundaberg, but is it a problem elsewhere?

Jennie: Yes, definitely. Some of the local councils here have contacted me about the floodlights on the beaches, and I’ve advised them, since there was no time available to relocate the lights, to put red filters on them during nesting season. The army also asked for advice, and while they weren’t able to use the red filters they were able to re-direct the lights so they were facing inwards and weren’t lighting up the actual beach. There are some places further south that are installing red lights but there are other problem areas, and nesting success has been going down in many areas already. There are also more Indigenous rangers trained in turtle conservation around Cape York. But there’s a problem in tourist areas where tourists see a turtle coming up onto the beach, get excited and she a torch on it, and the turtle gets confused and heads back into the water. We need education, education, education! It’s getting better but there’s still a lot to be done.

Ronda: And of coursse another problem up north with climate change is that the hotter sands are producing a greater proportion of females.

Jennie: Yes, over 99% of hatchlings are now females.

Ronda: I suppose that’s slightly better than 99% males, but they still need to be fertilised!

Jennie: Yes, we’re going to run out of males soon

Ronda: What about by-catch? Turtles getting caught in fish nets and so on? I hear it’s a major problem in some areas.

Sian: I’ve never actually seen and turtles in fish markets in Lombok, but they may be because it’s illegal to sell them and they’re not brought to the markets

Ronda: Moving on now, a huge problem is plastics and other pollutants, turtles eating plastic bags and micro plastics.

Jennie: Yes. Plastics, fishing lines, nets. An enormous problem.

Ronda: As well as swallowing, do they get entangled?

Jennie. Yes they do. QANTAS luckily sponsors me to fly turtles around from anywhere in Australia. They have such horrendous injuries we often have to amputate flippers. In fact we’ve just sent one back with two flippers now missing. One of the other common things we see is internal pockets of air under the shells caused by breakdown of ingested plastics and other items, and blockages caused by plastics so the air can’t escape, so the turtles can’t dive down any more. We can’t operate on them, and just have to look after them for months in shallow water until the blockage is cleared. The blockages also cause breakdown of materials that compromises their immune system and they suffer infections.

Sian: Do the turtles you release have a good survival rate?

Jennie: Yes. The one we released with two flippers had been with us a while. He was a big Olvie Ridley from western Cape York, and had already taken a front flipper off. We had to amputate the opposing back flipper. Because he was a male he had a long tail. It took him about 4 years to realise he could use his tail as a rudder, but he became practiced in moving around that way. Since we released him he has managed to swim 1850km, from western Cape York across to Northern Territory and then into Indonesia. So totally successful. We just have to give them a go.

Sian: Unfortunately we don’t have the same kind of resources here. We had a major flash storm here last year snd collected about one and a half tons of plastic washed onto the beach. I found a very young turtle amongst it. We couldn’t get her to the marine vet for about three days – just had to keep her resting and breathing. She was very exhausted and we weren’t sure what else was wrong with him. We finally got her there and they gave her antibiotics but she died after a few days. They said it was a stomach inflammation but I had to plead for an autopsy. They didn’t find any plastics in her, but I didn’t know then about this floater syndrome, and I don’t know whether they thought t check anything like that. Also, they wouldn’t have had any way of checking for microplastics coming through with seagrasses. We also see fish hooks stuck in flippers, but we’ve been told they’ll eventually rust away.

Jennie: The old hooks yes, but now they often use stainless steel hooks that don’t rust.

Ronda: Do those continue to cause problems, or does it become like someone with pierced ears and an earring?

Jennie: They normally do grow scar tissue around that

Ronda: We have a shorter session today, so we might talk about educating the public and the government tomorrow. Sian, you were setting up a turtle group through We Naturalists weren’t you? Maybe you could tell us a bit about that now.

Sian: I’ve been on the We Naturalists platform for about 8 months. It’s a bit like Facebook and Linked-In, a social media platform where it’s easy to set up a platform within it, which we can share with NGO’s, businesses, governments, schools etc. We run art classes for schools, and we store information on turtles.

Ronda: And it’s free membership, isn’t it?

Sian: Yes, it’s set up by an Indian philanthropist and conservationist, and unlike Facebook and other social media which start to monetise things after a while there is no cost involved with this.

Ronda: So you are going to set up a turtler discussion group, and those participating in these discussion – and others – would like to join in, they can join We Naturalists for free, and you can then send them an invitation to join the turtle discussion group, to carry on the discussions we’ve started?

Sian: Yes, that’s right. You can join as an individual or you can join up your organisation and create a profile for either. I’ve done both.

We Naturalist website:


To be continued after the next turtle workshop 22 June 2021