Two steps forward and one back for Cyprus’ endangered turtles

The unique turtles of Cyprus may soon be extinct due to population, fishing and tourism pressures.

Save for the soft glow cast from a waning moon in a sky perforated by thousands of stars, the beach is shrouded in darkness; the gentle undulating surf and sporadic puttering of small fishing craft lurking in the blackness provide the only sound off the quiet southern coast.

Despite conservation programs and the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, the turtle deaths continue; their perpetrators escaping both investigation and prosecution.

Close to the dunes, red tinted torchlight intermittently illuminates a patch of stony sand on which rests a small metal cage.

Beneath it, eight tiny heads, indistinct from dark grey pebbles, rest motionless as they take a first gulp of the clear night air.

Twenty minutes later, the diminutive loggerhead hatchlings summon the strength to begin their arduous journey from the nest over an obstacle strewn trail to the sea. It is the first of many challenges and few will survive to return to make their own nests here in years to come.

The incredible spectacle continues for most of the night under the watchful eyes of local volunteers, there to deter predators and to count each hatchling that successfully makes it into the water.

Physical intervention is discouraged although volunteers use torches at the water’s edge to mimic the now absent moonlight the newborn hatchlings are intuitively programmed to follow.

While little is known about the fifteen to thirty year period between a turtle’s birth and maturity, one factor is certain; survival of the Mediterranean’s green and loggerhead turtles remains critical.

Listed as an endangered species worldwide and protected under Cyprus law since 1971, the island’s turtle population encounters mixed fortunes.

It is estimated that just 600 female turtles are at large in the Mediterranean, putting them at a higher risk of extinction than their loggerhead brethren.

Competition with local fishermen over declining fish stocks, illegal nets and destruction of habitat are just a few of the challenges for both turtle species.

Despite conservation programs and the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, the turtle deaths continue; their perpetrators escaping both investigation and prosecution.

One of the major problems is that female turtles instinctively return to nest on, or close to, their ‘natal’ beach, the one on which they were born.

If disturbed, or unable to find a suitable nest site, she will dump her eggs at sea, endangering the survival of the local colony and shrinking the regional gene pool that is vital to maintaining healthy breeding adults in the future.

Once considered a delicacy, today it is the encroachment of tourism pushing some colonies to the brink of extinction.

Sadly for many resorts such as Ayia Napa, turtles are already a thing of the past.

Fortunately, for the time being at least, the turtle hatchery established in 1978 by Andreas Demetropoulos and his wife, Myroula Hadjichristophorou of the Fisheries Department, continues to thrive, reporting more than 200 nests this season.

Occupying a largely unspoilt area north-west of the island the seasonal station on the Lara-Toxeftra coastal region remains the most prolific nesting site for both turtle species.

Yet even this area is vulnerable; local demands to develop prime coastal land threatens these idyllic surroundings, perhaps by the time these hatchlings return, their natal nesting grounds may no longer exist.

Success at Lara has left many locals unaware of the small turtle colonies struggling to survive on Cyprus’ more developed coastline.

Several turtle conservation groups keep a watchful eye on the nesting grounds of a few resolute enclaves, including Episkopi Turtle Watch, one of three small groups dedicated to the conservation of turtles on largely undeveloped beaches within the Sovereign British Area (SBA) located to the west of Limassol.

Over the course of the nesting season, from late May to the end of August, Turtle Watch volunteers perform regular clean-up’s in addition to almost five hundred early morning beach walks covering the organisation’s four nesting beaches, which include the popular recreational beach at Curium.

With eighteen nests confirmed this season, and 446 hatchlings already safely over their first hurdle, these are minor victories in the long battle for the turtles’ continued existence on the southern coast.

Positive progress is too often marred by set-backs such as the death of five green turtles recently washed up on the Episkopi peninsula.

Autopsy attributed two of the fatalities to suffocation, a common phenomenon resulting from entrapment in fishing nets.

The other three were deliberately slaughtered by fishermen, the modus operandi to force a sharp object through their captured victims’ brains.

Combined with the sixteen deaths already reported this year off the Episkopi coast alone, and twenty-one in 2008, volunteers can do little but maintain their on-going vigils while continuing to campaign for greater public awareness and action from the authorities to give Cyprus’ turtles a fighting chance for survival.

The increasing annual death toll and recent deaths is a devastating blow for Episkopi Turtle Watch Co-ordinator Linda Stokes, a local diving instructor and formidable force behind the turtle conservation campaign.

She explains why the protection of turtles has wider implications for the region’s delicate ecological balance, “There’s a good solid reason why people should be bothered about the demise of the turtle population and that boils down to the fact that both the greens and loggerheads play a pretty vital role, particularly in the Mediterranean, in distributing nutrients and keeping the sea grass beds trimmed,” she says, “It’s these that provide a home for fish so if you lose them, then you have a problem; if you want healthy seas then it’s something you should be bothered about.”

Frustrated by the lack of decisive action by the local authorities, until now Linda has remained politely diligent; although it’s obvious these latest casualties have pushed her patience to its limits, “It seems reasonable to assume that the marine police were aware of which boats and people were fishing in the Zapalo area at the time the deliberate killings took place and hence should be able to compile a list of suspects and potential witnesses,” she claims, “We have asked both the Environment Department and the Chief Officer to press the police to thoroughly investigate these offences.”

Over the past three years the group has doubled its efforts to strengthen links with official bodies such as the local police, customs and the environment department, as well as beach employees, in a bid to improve detection and reporting of prohibited activities.

Illegal fishing and the driving of vehicles on turtle beaches are still major issues, “The biggest problem is that it just didn’t seem to be taken seriously…. at all,” she emphasises, “We’ve had to make a massive fuss about it before things started happening and something was done.”

Linda believes that a change in the law to allow fishing in 5m of water and above in SBA waters is a major cause of turtle fatalities.

The previous limit of 10m, although still significantly less than the protection for nesting beaches that exists in the Republic of Cyprus, could still be policed effectively she says.

Thus far her campaign to extend the minimum fishing depth during the turtle mating and nesting season has been unsuccessful.

Despite the overall increase in turtle nests and hatchlings, Linda is reluctant to predict an optimistic long-term outcome for the island’s most magnificent indigenous species, “It looks like a difference is being made but there’s a massive danger that all that could evaporate,” she says, “They are talking about reducing protection of the Akamas, they’re talking about building hotels right alongside nesting beaches, so if they are not really careful then all the good work could be undone. The jury’s out for the turtles, it should be good news but we just don’t know.”