Just like the members of his community in Marereni, John Katana, a reformed turtle poacher, once believed turtle meat makes children stronger and healthy, the reason pregnant women in his village enjoy turtle meat.
So, every time Katana spotted footprints of turtles at the shore where they went to lay their eggs, he would hunt, slaughter, and sell their meat around the village at US$1 (shs.100) or US$1.5 (shs. 150) a piece and keep some for himself and family.
As a reformed poacher, Katana now believes his village’s belief about turtles is a misconception likely to wipe out these innocent creatures in the community.
Kenya is home to five of the seven turtle species in the world, namely, the green turtle, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley and the leatherback turtle. However, the population of these five species is declining, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sea turtles are four-legged animals that have a shell and live in the ocean. Though they resemble tortoises, they have flippers instead of legs, enabling them to swim in the water.
Also, a sea turtle cannot retract its head and flippers into its shell, so if they encounter predators, the only escape route is to swim away.
The global decrease in sea turtles has been a result of many factors. However, in Kenya, apart from natural causes, the drop is primarily due to fishing activities and poaching. These result in the death of large numbers of the species.
Since the year began, several turtle mortalities have been reported in Marereni beach, a stretch of about 20 kilometres. By early May, more than 120 turtles were found washed ashore, dead.
The cases reported range from carcasses with broken necks and front flippers with missing eyes to remains of internal organs such as intestines only. Others include dismembered carcasses with only the carapaces (hard upper shells) remaining, carcasses with broken and rotting carapaces, carcasses with chopped heads, and bleached carcasses with the heads intact.
Recently we have witnessed a number of turtles washed ashore dead. A total of 59 so far have been found from January to date through @SpeciesSavers with funding from @europeaid . More Support is needed @WWF @USFWS @conserveturtles @FloridaSeaGrant @SEATURTLEORG @endangered @PTES pic.twitter.com/ksXbOjq7bD— Community Based Environmental Conservation (COBEC) (@cobecnet) February 19, 2021
According to Daniel Masha, the Chief Executive Officer of Marereni Biodiversity Conservancy (MABICO), a community-based organization, the growing mortalities have mainly been due to poaching and trawling activities in the region. He estimates that half of the cases are due to trawling, 30% are due to poaching, and the rest are unknown causes.
Dr Thomas Mkare, a research scientist at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) who was among the team investigating the turtle mortalities in the area, notes that 60% of the deaths are related to fishing activities, 30% are due to unknown causes, while diseases and others account for 10%.
Small scale fishers use illegal fishing gears such as monofilament gill nets and spear guns in areas where sea turtles are foraging. At the same time, trawlers operate without a turtle exclusion device (TED) and fish near shore-waters where there are lots of seagrasses – a delicacy for turtles, explains Dr Mkare.
According to Anderson Chai, a longline fisherman of 14 years, artisanal fishers rarely target the turtles. However, sometimes they leave their traps in the waters only to find the turtles trapped in them.
“Just the other day, when I went to check the traps which I had left overnight, I found a turtle hooked by them. The turtle had a bit of an injury as it is likely to have struggled to let itself out. The only thing I did was to release it back to the waters. This is the fourth time I have found a turtle caught in one of my traps in all those years,” Chai said.
“It is only by bad luck that they get trapped in our gears. The fishers don’t intentionally target turtles, and it is only the fishers who eat turtles that will take and eat them if they are trapped in their gears. However, even the eating is done discreetly because we are aware that it is illegal to be caught with a turtle; thus, it is very difficult to go fishing to catch turtles intentionally,” he added.
According to Moses Karisa, the Vice Chairman of MABICO, trawling is responsible for many of the turtle deaths along its shores. He notes that there was a trawler operating along the Kipini- Marereni area, and it had caused many deaths in the area.
In April, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Kenya Fisheries halted the prawn trawler, MV Roberto, in Kipini beach after the local community and fishers complained of depleted yields and dead turtles washing up on the shore since it came in.
An inspection revealed that not only did the trawling operation have numerous illegalities, they were also trawling in shallow waters around turtle breeding sites near Ziwayu. At the same time, the vessel did not have a TED or any bycatch reduction device on its netting, which is essential to prevent the off take of underage fish and turtles.
Karisa explains that when the trawling net goes after the prawns, the net is usually placed in areas where there are seagrasses and corals, ideal breeding grounds for turtles. By the time the trapped turtles are released from the net, he adds, they are already dead or seriously injured with broken flippers or neck, he says.
A Megafauna bycatch assessment conducted in a coastal artisanal fishery in Kenya found that of the five turtle species found in Kenya, the Green turtle is the most common bycatch species in all fisheries at 57%, followed by Hawksbill 19% and Loggerhead at 17%.
“The Green turtle is usually immobile during the day. However, most of the daytime it is sleeping; this is what might be pre-disposing it to be easily captured,” Dr Mkare stated.
He adds that the Green turtle is the most eaten because all the others are poisonous. In mid-March, 19 people died in Madagascar after consuming turtle meat. Nine of them were children.
Numerous research findings have shown that the consumption of turtle products may be hazardous due to the presence of bacteria, parasites, biotoxins, and environmental contaminants. Some of the health effects of consuming sea turtles infected with zoonotic pathogens include diarrhoea, vomiting, and extreme dehydration, which occasionally have resulted in hospitalization and death.
The research also shows that the levels of heavy metals and organochlorine compounds measured in sea turtle edible tissues exceed international food safety standards. They could, therefore, result in toxic effects, including neurotoxicity (affects functioning and structure of the central nervous system), kidney disease, liver cancer, and developmental effects in foetuses and children.
Masha notes that from observation, when a poacher is caught with a basket full of meat, it usually means that they have slaughtered several turtles, as the consumable meat constitutes a tiny percentage of the turtle. He approximates that out of eight kilograms of turtle, human beings consume only about 400g as meat. The rest is usually waste, including intestines and other products.
According to a 2019 Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) report, the consumption of turtle meat is deeply engrained in Kenya’s coastal culture, and it is most valuable to some communities that believe it is an aphrodisiac for men. Eggs are also poached for food and occasionally for sale whereas, in the illegal local market, an egg costs US$ 0.02 (shs. 2), and a clutch of eggs sell at between US$2.5(shs.250) and US$8(shs. 800) depending on the target customer, who include tourists and foreign residents.
Carapaces are obtained from nesting females, as well as stranded or captured turtles. The carapaces and stuffed turtles are mostly used for decoration and cost between US$8 and US$20 (shs.2000) in the illegal local markets.
Oil is one of the essential products traded due to its perceived medicinal value. Locals believe it treats asthma, impotence and infertility, waterborne diseases, earaches, measles and tuberculosis. In addition, local midwives use it to induce quicker placenta presentation. It trades for US$10 (shs.1000) a litre.
MABICO members usually carry out daily patrol activities along the shores and, on sighting poachers, report them to KWS. However, most of the culprits typically make a run for it once they sight the KWS officials. They often use the mangroves as their escape route, making it difficult for the KWS officials unfamiliar with the territory to capture them, observes Michael Mwayele, a MABICO member.
“Being that we come from this community, it is risky for us to be seen as the ones snitching on the poachers. So, when we come across them carrying the meat or preparing to slaughter the turtle, we quickly report the issue to KWS for them to act without taking the law into our own hands,” he said.
Yunos Sahe, the Chairman of Malindi Beach Management Unit (BMU), notes that even in his area, poachers or fishers caught with turtle meat often take to their heels on seeing the KWS officials or tourist police unit (TPU). However, though they know who the perpetrators are, community members never report them for fear of risking their lives or because of the benefit they derive from getting the turtle product.
Those that end up being caught face the law but the 2019 KWS report notes that the country still experiences low prosecution rates and even lower rates of successful convictions.
“Sometimes suspects are charged far lower than the fine specified in the legislation due to political interference. Additionally, the court procedure requires undisputed proof that the meat or oil confiscated is actually from a sea turtle. This requires the use of genetic tools that are currently unavailable locally, leading to some cases being dismissed on this basis,” the report notes.
The KWS has not been available to answer any questions with regards to prosecutions; thus, more clarity could not be obtained.
In Watamu and Malindi, where marine protected areas (MPA) have been established, turtle mortalities due to fishing and poaching activities are exceedingly rare. Thus, MABICO is currently pushing for Marereni beach to be put under a locally managed marine area (LMMA).
According to Masha, though they carry out community sensitization on the importance of conserving the turtles, it is not enough if the economic pressure driving them to poach these species is not solved. He hopes that the establishment of an LMMA will protect the turtles and the biodiversity in the area and provide employment and generate revenues to improve the livelihoods of the community members.
At the time of publishing, other cases of turtle deaths in the same area are still being reported.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Science Africa on 4 June 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Katana, a reformed poacher, at their home in Marereni / Credit: Sharon Atieno.