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Tears of the turtles

Wednesday, July 11 2012

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Memorial for Leatherback Turtles Lost: (left to right) Community activist, Sherwin Ruiz, Nirmal Biptah (curator at the Zoo) and Lisa Ramkissoon-Mahara...
Memorial for Leatherback Turtles Lost: (left to right) Community activist, Sherwin Ruiz, Nirmal Biptah (curator at the Zoo) and Lisa Ramkissoon-Mahara...

Responding to the horrific event played out earlier this week at the most prolific nesting habitat for the critical endangered leatherback turtles where thousands of eggs and hatchlings were destroyed at what should have been a safe haven, a team comprising Gupte Lutchmedial, Nirmal Biptah, Lisa Ramkissoon-Maharaj and Richard Joseph from the Zoological Society of Trinidad and the Manatee Conservation Trust (MCT), involved in turtle protection at Manzanilla, visited the site to see first-hand what took place.

Lutchmedial, president of the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago in an immediate reaction, exclaimed, “My organisation is in strong condemnation of what took place and it is unbelievable to see the extent of the losses to the leatherback turtle population at Grande Riviere.

This is something that we will be hard-pressed to explain to our international partners in conservation, including our friends from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the National Aquarium in Baltimore who have been bombarding me with their concerns.”

Lutchmedial said that ooking at the situation objectively, one cannot help but see the irony that the self-same “golden-goose” for the community and hoteliers in this area quickly became expendable, when their properties were threatened by what surely is a natural process. But most unbelievable of all is the justification being given for this uncaring, irresponsible and avoidable action by those in authority, entrusted to protect these helpless animals.

Richard Joseph, secretary of the MCT cannot believe that such a tragedy can be justified and lamented, “To hear the head of a state agency come out and openly say that nothing was wrong with the remedial works as only ‘hundreds’ of hatchlings were destroyed is nothing short of scandalous and a slap in the face for turtle conservationists who have laboured long and hard in the vineyards.” Overcome by his emotions, Joseph continued, “ It is high time that citizens stand up and demand that persons occupying well-paid jobs funded by our tax dollars carry out their duties with due diligence. In a first-world country, heads would be rolling today as persons would be held to account for this travesty.”

The Zoological Society group noted that TT is now the laughing-stock of the world, as with today’s technology, this incident has gone viral on the social network as well as featured by the conventional media including BBC, CNN and Fox News. John Seyjagat, curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore in a wake-up call to TT cautioned, “Trinidad and Tobago has long been a country that was envied for its protection of turtles and known to have among the largest nesting population in the world at a single site, but overnight this site has turned into the largest graveyard for leatherback turtles. What a sad day for this country and a blot to its sterling reputation as a defender of turtles!”

Lutchmedial could not help but question, “In this time of crisis, where are the protesters who take up lesser causes? Where are our “welfarists” and animal behaviourists in this time of real need? Why the silence from the many guardians of the turtles? Now is the time for the Turtle Village Trust and the other community-based organisations which not only receive support from the Government and corporate sector for turtle protection, but also make a living from this resource to show their mettle and take a stand against this act of animal cruelty. Where are those who promote this country as an eco-tourism paradise?”

On the visit, the team met with Sherwin Ruiz and his group from the community, trying to salvage what little they could after the wanton destruction. President of the MCT, Ramkissoon-Maharaj, impressed by their efforts, urged, “Support is needed for this group, who like a David among Goliath is condemning this action and leading an on-site effort to save as many of the dug-up hatchlings as possible.” As for Ruiz himself, he said. “I had to stand by helplessly and look at this inhumane and uncaring act take place because a few buildings were threatened.

There are other measures which could have been taken to safeguard the buildings without jeopardising the future of this endangered animal.”

The few hatchlings that were collected by this group have since been released into the sea.

Lutchmedial, further questioned “Whose lives were threatened to such an extent that we had to destroy the future of this species repository in the thousands of destroyed eggs and hundreds of dead hatchlings? He continued, “The turtles have adapted to dealing with nature by laying thousands of eggs to ensure that at least one survives to adulthood, but faced with man’s intervention they are powerless.

When we reap the seeds of what we have sown here at Grande Riviere, I hope that it will not be too late.”

To make matters even worse, Biptah, curator at the Zoo pointed out the deleterious effects of the heavy equipment used in the operations for future emergence of hatchlings. Giving his viewpoint, he commented, “This excavator would have passed over many other nests and compacted the sand. It is therefore more than likely that these remaining hatchlings when they are ready would be unable to burrow their way out of those nests.”

Various persons have weighed in on alternatives to what took place and there is consensus that the situation could have been alleviated by the use of sand bags to stabilise the banks, even if this was temporary until the nesting season is over. Also, better coordination of the activity by relevant state agencies would have saved the eggs and hatchlings.

Community persons such as Ruiz and his group could have been called upon to remove eggs for relocation and hatchlings before the new course was cut.

Our “welfarists” and turtle protectors should have been on hand to assist in the delicate operations and avoid the disaster that transpired.

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