Conservation

Hotspot of biodiversity

On the remote island of Príncipe, government officials, conservationists and communities have come together to fight plastic pollution and protect its dense sea turtle populations.

Words by Nane Steinhoff
Photographs by Vasco Pissarra, courtesy of Fundaçao Príncipe

A small boat speeds over the turquoise water and races towards the landmass in the distance, covered by 31-million-year-old rainforest and steep, rugged hills. From the water, Príncipe looks like a relic from an era long gone. Pristine and undeveloped, some call it the greenest island on Earth. Once the patrol boat arrives on shore, the crew disembark and begin to set up camp. There is work to do. The team is here to protect the island’s large sea turtle populations. 

Situated in the Gulf of Guinea, Príncipe, the smaller of the two islands in the Central African island country of São Tomé and Príncipe, is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and has the highest rate of endemic species by square km on the planet. The country is part of a volcano chain that is characterised by striking rock formations, beaches and rainforests that remained untouched until the late 15th century when the islands were colonised by the Portuguese. The Gulf of Guinea is a marine biodiversity hotspot, supporting vast numbers of unique coral reef fish and mollusc species, as well as large sea turtle numbers. Five of the seven existing sea turtle species are found around the island: the Olive Ridley, leatherback, loggerhead, green, and the hawksbill turtle. During the 2021/2022 nesting season alone, 2,642 turtle nests were counted – a record number for Príncipe.

These impressive numbers haven’t always been the norm. In the past, turtles around the island were widely eaten by local communities, making them a target for poachers. As the small island 220km off the coast of Central Africa only has around 7,500 inhabitants and a quarter of its space is inhabited, poachers had a relatively easy task of catching turtles along the remote coastlines. A shift in perception, however, has changed the fate of the turtles as turtle protection became one of Príncipe’s flagship examples of integrated community work. As an autonomous region, Príncipe led turtle conservation efforts with the launch of regional legislation in 2009 that prohibited the hunting and marketing of turtle shells and meat. This was followed by the National Decree-Law in 2014, a government effort to further protect the species. 

The government’s focus on building a sustainable conservation framework posed the perfect backdrop for the efforts of Fundaçāo Príncipe, a local NGO that promotes the sustainable economic and social development of the island’s communities alongside conservation aims and the protection of natural resources. Through a multidimensional approach, Estrela Matilde, executive director at Fundaçāo Príncipe, and her team were able to turn turtle poachers into protectors, increasing the number of nests from 1,750 in the 2015/16 breeding season to 2,642 in 2021/22, and doubling the number of hatchlings released to 130,000 while nearing a zero-poaching rate. Matilde explains: “Poachers turned monitors are now the voices of conservation. They’re the ones in the field, they know the sea and the turtles. At the same time, we started educating the kids. I think we changed their minds; for them it is no longer acceptable to eat turtles. It’s not part of their culture and tradition anymore. We really changed a generation and I believe that habit will disappear.”

Photographs by Vasco Pissarra, courtesy of Fundaçao Príncipe

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Issue 25
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This feature appears in ISSUE 25: Supermayan of Oceanographic Magazine

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