Poachers still targeting turtles
This year’s turtle nesting season looks set to be even more successful than last year’s record showing, despite several cases of poaching being reported.
As of Monday, 8 July, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment had logged 97 nests in Grand Cayman. With each turtle laying between three and six nests per season, this indicates that about 20 turtles have nested on local beaches so far this year, according to DoE research officer Janice Blumenthal.
“It’s been busy,” said Ms Blumenthal, who organises the nest monitoring efforts.
By this time last year, 84 nests had been counted on the island; 2012 was the most successful year for turtle nesting in Grand Cayman since the Department of Environment started its nest monitoring programme in 1999.
In total, 270 nests were found on local beaches last year, nearly 100 more nests than were counted in 2011. The previous record year was 2010, when 246 nests were found.
In the first year of its record taking in 1999, the department found only 23 nests.
Despite much closer tracking of nests and daily checks of the beaches by volunteers to find the nests, turtles continue to be poached in the Cayman Islands. Ms Blumenthal said she was aware of three poaching incidents that have taken place this season. In two of these cases, authorities have managed to find the turtles alive and return them to the sea.
In May, a woman found a 2.5-feet-long hawksbill turtle in her back yard, half a mile inland in West Bay. The DoE’s chief conservation officer Mark Orr said at the time it was likely the turtle had been taken by poachers from Barkers beach when she came up from the sea to nest and then transported to the neighbourhood. He surmised that the poachers had flipped her onto her back but not tied her up and she had managed to right herself.
“We had a similar case to that also in West Bay on 18 June when 911 got a call from a member of the public about an adult female nesting green sea turtle in the middle of West Bay, nowhere near the beach,” Ms Blumenthal said. “We still don’t know who took that one.”
Police who responded to the call found the turtles in the bushes off Cinder Lane. “She was way back in the bush, turned on her back. It seems like she had been there for a few days,” Ms Blumenthal said.
The officers took the huge turtle, which weighed between 300 and 400 pounds, to the Turtle Farm, where DoE staff later picked her up and then transported her to Seven Mile Beach and released her back into the sea.
Volunteer turtle nest patrollers discovered another poaching case in North Side a week later, when they came across evidence of poachers dragging a green sea turtle away from a nest she had just dug, but before she had a chance to lay her eggs.
“It looked like they flipped her over onto her back and dragged her off,” Ms Blumenthal said. “She hadn’t laid her eggs.”
Removing pregnant and nesting turtles has a major effect on the turtle population, she explained, as even though turtles may lay up to six nests in a single season, many eggs never hatch and the survival rate of turtles into egg-laying maturity is believed to be miniscule.
“The turtles have a very small chance of reaching maturity,” Ms Blumenthal said.
That turtle has not been found.
Another turtle had a lucky escape on Thursday, 4 July, when beach patrollers near theReef Resort in East End found a huge turtle trapped in the undergrowth of deep brush at the edge of the beach. “She was jammed up in there,” said Ms Blumenthal, who added that it looked as though the turtle had fallen onto her back while digging her nest when her flippers got caught in the bushes.
“They took water to her and cut her loose. She was completely fine, but it was lucky that they found her when they did. If she had spent the whole day out there, she probably would have died in the heat.
“When they cut her loose, she went sprinting down the beach and swam off,” she said.
This was the first hawksbill seen so far this nesting season. “The hawksbill numbers are very low,” Ms Blumenthal said.
Patrollers can tell the breed of turtle simply from the tracks, known as batabano, in the sand that lead them to the nests. Each breed leaves a distinctive pattern, with green sea turtle tracks look entirely different from loggerheads and hawksbills.
Each year during the nesting season, from May to November, teams of volunteers trawl the beaches throughout the Cayman Islands looking for the tracks.
If the tracks lead them to the tell-tale mounds of sand that indicate the presence of a nest, the volunteers notify Ms Blumenthal or other DoE staff who come to the site and log the precise location of the nest. They then carefully flatten the mound and rake over the sand and the tracks to hide the existence of the nest from would-be poachers.
Ms Blumenthal said volunteers are always needed.
Anyone who wants to volunteer for turtle nest patrol duty should email [email protected] or call 949-8469.