Saving Papua New Guinea's gentle giants

29/03/2012 15:54

Karkum beach rangers carrying out tagging and monitoring of leatherback turtles in

Papua New Guinea. Picture courtesy of Wenceslaus Magun. 


By Wenceslaus Magun

Doing what I like best and getting the best out of it is what pleases me most.  I do not want to be seen as just another fart environmental activist wasting my time campaigning to save endangered turtles at the expense of my family, friends, and associates. 

On the contrary, I want to remain phlegm, floating Mas Kagin Tapani (MAKATA), a not-for-profit group using whatever limited resources we have to achieve our vision.  Instead of being contorted by negative criticisms aimed to dampen my heart, mind and spirit in order to give up my worthy vocation, I intend to translate these challenges into opportunities of hope.

In doing so, I am leading our team to address the plight of the most critically endangered leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in Papua New Guinea (PNG).  

Brief Project Origin

Saving, protecting and restoring critically endangered leatherback turtles in a place, and time where turtles are culturally used for feasts, ceremonial rituals and for daily consumption with very limited resources is the most daunting task.

It demands commitment, and passionate desire to achieve this goal particularly in changing the mindset and attitude of our people.

Most coastal communities visited in PNG in 2006 disclosed that they either originated from a turtle or a marine species. They further raised concerns in the drastic decline of their marine resources and admitted that they themselves have contributed to the decline of its stock.

They realized that if nothing is done to save, protect and restore the turtles, or replenish their marine resources their cultural heritage and significant relationship to turtles, their marine biodiversity and their source of livelihood will soon be gone. 

This urgent awakening of survival in the face of existing threats provoked the beginning of the establishment of our Sea Turtle Restoration and Protection Project (STRP) in Madang in mid 2006.

Since then, we continue to strive to reach out to our target communities in Karkum, Mirap, Yadigam, Tokain, Magubem and Kimadi in north coast, and Mur, Baru, Sel, Lamtup, Singor, Teterai, Yamai, Long Island in Rai coast district, and in a few coastal villages on Karkar Island as well as some coastal villages in north coast and in the Bogia district.

We have and will continue to reach out to a broader audience in our nation using the media to inculcate to them a sense of obligation and responsibility to take pride in being custodians of this endangered turtle.

We want them to realise that these turtles have lived for more than 100 million years surviving the era of dinosaurs.  These unique turtle species can grow to more than two meters, dive the deepest, weight more than 300 kilograms and swim the furthers.  We now know that they are ocean voyagers swimming for 6,000 miles, migrating through Pacific Island countries all the way to feed in California and returning to PNG to lay eggs.

Because of these turtles’ unique characteristics it has put these communities on the global lime light.  The world is watching them to see that they also take active role in the global effort to protect and restore this endangered species.

Project need and urgency

The International Union for Conservation Network (IUCN) identified leatherback turtles as the most critically endangered sea turtle species on its Red List.  This voice is calling out on all stakeholders to take immediate steps to mitigate any risks that will cause the population of these turtles to dwindle to the point of extinction. 

In PNG some effort have been done to prevent their extinction along the Huon coast covering villages of Kamiali, Busamang, Labu Tale and Labu Miti but it has not extended to other provinces in the country.

The Western Pacific population of this turtle species is declining so fast that if nothing is done to prevent this from happening, they could go into extinction before the next decade.  The urgent need to stop this from becoming a reality has seen us take immediate steps to address this situation in Madang Province.

Since establishing our project we are slowly transforming the mindset of a people who habitually killed leatherbacks and harvested their eggs for consumption.  Some of these communities have appreciated the values of the species and are now protecting and restoring them.  But that is still not sufficient. The need to determine turtles nesting population size and develop management strategies for each of the communities engaged in this project demands that additional training is needed.  These trainings should enable beach rangers to design, develop, implement and sustain conservation initiatives to maximize hatchling production and on-shore survival. 

Tokain villagers developing their coastal marine management plan during a

community development workshop facilitated by Makata's National Coordinator

Wenceslaus Magun and his team of community facilitators in March 2012.

More communities need to develop their communities’ conservation management plans.  With adequate training we are optimistic the communities will nurture a long-term conservation ethic and will become role models in sharing and working with other communities to promote turtle conservation efforts in the region.

That is the fundamental reason urging us to complete establishing Coastal Marine Management Areas (CMMAs) in our current project sites and to explore and extend to new sites.

Project Sustainability 

“Feed a man a fish, and he will go hungry.  Teach him how to catch a fish, and he will survive,” is a Chinese proverb that challenges us to ensure that our efforts must have a successful long lasting impact after we exit in the project site communities.  We try to achieve this through advocacy and campaign programs complemented with life-long practical skills.  

We endeavour to lead them to develop their own conservation area management plans.  We want to take them through a process where they are able to identify issues and develop solutions for them. We desire to continue to facilitate debates, discussions, story-telling sessions, link traditional conservation knowledge and practises with modern scientific knowledge and allow the communities to be involved.  Through that process we are able to see some communities taking steps to identify their community vision and mission and deal with their issues. 

Not all the communities have reached this level of success and so we intend to continue our programs. 

Adhoc monitoring and evaluation by our CF’s, our national coordinator and our board members in these communities indicate that many of the community members still want to learn more about turtles, marine eco-systems, turtle tagging and monitoring so that they know more about turtles, and their marine environment and are able to tag and monitor the turtles that come to nest on their beach.  We have supplied Karkum community with the titanium tagging devices and clips but we need more of these equipment to supply to the neighbouring villages. With the tagging devices, and other necessary equipment they can be able to sustain their beach monitoring programs.

In addition we run other community development trainings geared towards broadening their knowledge, and perception of what real and false developments mean.  We probe them to see the different risks these developments has on their lives, belief, cultures, economy, and that of their natural resources and how these changes are affecting their lives.  We encourage them to see how and what they can and should do to be in control of these situations and their destiny.

We enable them to see a bigger picture of their resources and how it can affect their lives.  We do this by enabling them to develop their own resource maps and land use plans.  We provide them the tools to map their conservation area map and enable them to achieve this outcome.

We show them documentary films, educational awareness posters, flyers, drama, songs and dances and other performing arts activities to reinforce the messages we impart.  In fact we encourage them to create and demonstrate their own expressive arts, songs and dances about turtles and their conservation initiatives to others so that they realise that learning is also full of fun and excitement.  We hope to give them some form of incentives to acknowledge their efforts and reward them for their creative initiatives. 

The Karkum STRP bill board alerting the public to the conversation site. Picture

courtesy of Wenceslaus Magun.

We encourage exchange tours. Since the establishment of this project communities in our project sites have played hosts to the National Alliance of Indigenous Sea and Marine Areas (NAILSMA), resource owners in Australia, students from Denmark, tourists, other visiting Pacific island countries dignitaries, students from urban centres, delegation of the South Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP), the Australian High Commissioner to PNG Mr. Ian Kemish and his team amongst others. Karkum villagers in particular have gained so much from the economic spin-offs as a result of their initiative to build their eco-lodge and for being the first community in our project site to establish their CMMAs using CD. These shared experiences have impacted their lives and the lives of their visiting friends. 

We intend to invite other skilled resource people to visit these communities and build their capacities on sustainable fishing, eco-tourism ventures, and other community livelihood projects so that these activities will complement the communities’ conservation efforts. 

With funding assistance from Santa Monica Seafood and FishWise, we sponsored a micro-credit village banking scheme. This scheme demonstrates an alternative conservation area management option aimed at providing direct incentives to resource owners who take pride and positive steps to take ownership of their project.

We believe strongly that profound environmental stewardship takes place once the communities are convicted that this species truly has significance and therefore must be protected and restored.  Only then can they take positive steps to save them from their loss.

We are optimistic that when this happen not a vestige of their habitual killing of this species for protein will remain in these communities.  We hope to leave a legacy that these small steps will see a gradual increase in the leatherback turtle population in our country and in the region.

Project Partners

To become more effective, vibrant and dynamic we have become active members of the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) group on 20th September 2012.  We continue to network with other international and local NGOs including Turtle Island Restoration Network, South Pacific Regional Environment Program, the Mineral Policy Institute of Australia, Oxfam Australia, Friends of the Earth Australia, Global Greengrants Fund, The Natioanl Fisheries Authority, The Nature Conservancy, WWF-Western Melanesia, United Nations Development Program, and East Niu Britain Eksen Komiti and Wide Bay Conservation Group, Partners with Melanesia, GILDIPASI Planning Committee, Duergo Community Development Association, Karkar District ELCPNG Bagiai Circuit Youth and indigenous people of Rai coast, and Bagabag Island.

We hope that these small steps we are taking in collaborating with our key stakeholders and partners will go a long way in saving and preventing cultural heritage, other terrestrial and marine species, eco-systems, habitat and biodiversity loss.

  • Wenceslaus Magun heads the PNG-based conservation organisation Mas Kagin Tapani. You can read more about the organisation's activities on the Mas Kagin Tapani Blog