The Fiji Times
ONE could easily turn a blind eye to the slaughter of these 84 turtles as the Methodist Church and Ministry of Fisheries have done and pretend that the loss of these turtles means nothing.
But this would be like condoning the equivalent mass culling of whales in the Southern Ocean or the annihilation of Africa’s elephants.
These marine turtles are endangered for a reason and for the Methodist Church and Ministry of Fisheries to not take any action over this tragic event is inexcusable.
There are now 41,415 species on the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) Red List and 16,306 of them are threatened with extinction, up from 16,118 last year.
The total number of extinct species has reached 785 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or in cultivation.
One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70 per cent of the world’s assessed plants on the 2007 IUCN Red List are in jeopardy.
The slaughter of turtles in Fiji is happening at an unabated rate as there is no real enforcement or action by the authorities.
Furthermore, who in the villages will report their relatives or friends for killing these turtles because this is deemed even worse than killing the turtles?
I recently heard someone in Fiji say “why should we care, they are just turtles and besides this is our customary right?”
Moreover, Joketani Cokanasiga, the interim Fisheries Minister, was quoted as saying, “if it is their traditional fishing grounds, they can harvest them”.
He also said “it is a very sensitive matter and if anything harsh is done, they might just go around and cancel the moratorium.”
With these few words, the interim Minister has virtually said people can continue killing turtles and that the turtle moratorium is worthless because if anyone is punished, then they will then take the law into their own hands.
This is a worrying response from a person that is supposed to uphold the law and prevent the overexploitation of our fisheries.
The indifference shown by the authorities will spell the end for these animals if they do not act on this issue.
However, the minister is right about one thing this is a sensitive issue.
The mass killing of any animal for whatever reason is very sensitive and not for the reasons he thinks.
Many people around the world spend a considerable amount of money, effort, and time in conserving threatened species like turtles and this action was a huge blow to marine conservation efforts around the world.
In Hawaii, if observers on the fishing boats find more than three turtles in their nets in a season they can close the whole fishing industry down.
Some countries (and people) take the conservation of turtles seriously and it is a pity that Fiji does not.
Turtles are becoming ever increasingly rare due to overharvesting by people consuming their eggs and/or through eating them as juveniles and adults.
Traditionally, turtles were only ever eaten on ceremonial occasions.
In the past, turtles were relatively common and people used traditional methods to harvest them so the numbers consumed were relatively low.
However, this is no longer true as anyone with a boat and an outboard motor can catch a turtle and unfortunately this is what is happening all over Fiji.
The “rules” are not the same as before. If they harvested the turtles using traditional methods, then I think they could use the argument that this is a customary right but now that they have modern equipment to do this, this is not tradition, this is exploitation.
Let’s face it, these turtles would not have been slaughtered like this had it not been for this church conference.
One of the problems many parishioners face is that feel obliged to contribute to the church and if they cannot give any money (as many people cannot), then they will exploit their natural resources to “impress their guests”.
I thought that the church was a responsible organisation interested in the welfare of all God’s creatures but clearly it is not.
Instead of promoting such activities the church should be actively campaigning against such barbarism.
It is not just the killing of these turtles that is the problem; it is also the way the turtles are killed. Most turtles are inhumanely killed and strangely the SPCA (Society for the Protection of Animals) has been very silent on this practice. The church help rid Fiji of cannibalism (which was once a cultural and traditional practice) and they should now stop people from harvesting endangered species. They have to accept their responsibility in all this. They can blame the Ministry of Fisheries and even the interim Government but at the end of the day these turtles were harvested for a church conference and I think people are forgetting this.
People often blame a lack of awareness for the problem but when you speak to the people concerned they know exactly what they are doing and the ramifications of their actions.
They know they will get fined if they sell a turtle shell and they also know they should not be catching these animals but they do it anyway they cannot help themselves.
What the Fijian people fail to appreciate is that these animals will go extinct if their attitude and behaviour do not change.
These iconic species (just as China has its pandas and India has its tigers) are disappearing and their populations are dwindling fast.
Just because we do not know exactly how many we have (just as we don’t know how many people live in Fiji) does not mean we should continue harvesting them as happened in Macuata. In the past, several fishing industries around the world have collapsed due to over harvesting and with this collapse came job losses and huge social problems.
The church and the ministry need to look at the big picture and the future not just at the short-term.
If turtles go extinct, and at this rate they will, we will all be very much poorer for it.
The world will miss an oceanic icon and I’d like it put on record that the Methodist Church of Fiji and the interim Minister of Fisheries had a big hand in their decline.
This slaughter, however, is just the tip of the iceberg because people throughout Fiji regularly take turtles.
People like eating turtles and this is the problem.
However, if this is the case, then perhaps the Ministry of Fisheries could establish a turtle breeding and rearing facility like people do in other aquaculture industries.
It is these animals that could be consumed for their meat and for customary practices rather than the wild turtles.
However, we should all take heed and learn some valuable lessons from the killing of the turtles in Macuata.
While there are many scapegoats for the slaughter of these turtles, the fact of the matter is that this despicable and unwarranted act has happened and so what we need to do now is learn from this so it never happens again.
The way forward from this is to get the people responsible to say they will not do this again and we also need to get the church and Ministry of Fisheries even more involved in conservation.
Let’s turn this disaster into something positive.
One way the church could contribute towards conservation is to donate some of the money raised during the conference to pay for some staff to patrol the villages and to educate people about not harvesting turtles.
They could also get their youth involved in conservation programs and preach from the pulpit that we should not abuse our natural resources.
If an individual or fishing organisation and not the church had killed these many turtles then they would have been punished to the full extent of the law. We simply can not have rules for some and not for others.
Let us learn from this but not ignore what has happened and look towards the future so everyone can share and experience the natural wonders we have in our amazing world.
The author is a Conservation Biologist at the University of the South Pacific and the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the organisation he works for.