Sat, 15 May 2004

Former turtle hunter now fighting to save turtles

Slamet Susanto, Bantul, Yogyakarta

Until five years ago, Rudjito, a resident of Srigading village in Bantul regency, was an aggressive turtle hunter, slaying five to six sea turtles in one night to make ends meet.

Armed with a spear, a machete and a net, the 45-year-old left his home near Samas beach, some 50 kilometers south of Yogyakarta, at sunset to hunt turtles.

Along the beach, Rudjito would search for and dig up dozens of sea turtle eggs for sale or consumption. He cannot remember how many sea turtles he killed or captured over the years.

"It might be hundreds, or even thousands. I can't remember. It's countless," Rudjito told The Jakarta Post recently.

As time went by and more people in his village and other areas started hunting sea turtles for a living, Rudjito suddenly discovered that the turtles were disappearing from Samas beach.

As late as the 1990s, sea turtles were abundant on the beach, particularly during the egg-laying season from May to August.

"A turtle can lay up to 70 to 115 eggs at a time," Rudjito said.

Adding to his concern was the fact that some fish species were also beginning to disappear from the nearby waters along with the sea turtles.

Rudjito and his fellow hunters and local fishermen did not know why this was happening, until a team of environmentalists from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta gave them a scientific explanation.

They were told that sea turtles balance the marine habitat by eating the poisonous red algae. The decreasing sea turtle population resulted in more red algae, which contributed to declining fish populations.

The situation became so critical the Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA) of Bantul regency stepped in to curb the hunting of sea turtles, launching a campaign warning residents of the danger of extinction.

Rudjito was moved by the campaign and decided to stop hunting turtles, and instead turn his effort to saving them.

"If only I knew that sea turtles played such an important role, I would never have hunted them," he said.

In 2001, Rudjito obtained Rp 4.5 million in financial aid from Bantul's BKSDA, along with some contributions from local fishermen, to establish the South Sea Turtle Conservation Forum (FKPPS), with himself as chairman. The forum then began a sea turtle breeding program.

Occupying some 300 square meters of land and with two breeding containers, the forum succeeded in hatching 98 of the 102 sea turtle eggs they collected in 2002.

After being nurtured for two months in the containers, the baby turtles were released into the ocean.

"We are currently waiting for another 98 eggs to hatch," said Rudjito, adding that the success was a result of trial and error.

There certainly have been some failures in breeding the sea turtles, as most of the forum's activists began the program with almost zero practical knowledge.

Besides Samas beach, similar breeding programs are taking place at Parangtritis beach and Kewaru beach.

In Parangtritis, Riyanto, 42, has been successful in breeding sea turtles. Riyanto says he dreams of seeing sea turtles once again return in large numbers to the beach where he lives.

He said he did not hesitate to use his own money to buy turtle eggs collected by local people, which they sell for Rp 2,000 each.

"I just want to see as many turtles on the beach as back in the 1980s. They looked beautiful under the sun.

"I will hatch any turtle eggs I have because it's almost egg- laying season," he said.

He said he had hatched as many as 315 eggs since 2002, but only some 70 percent of the turtles survived long enough to be released back into the sea.

The breeding program on Kewaru beach has not been as successful as those in Samas and Parangtritis. This is due to a lack of awareness among locals of the importance of sea turtles for the health of the marine habitat.

As a result, there are only empty containers on the breeding grounds, probably foretelling a bleak future for sea turtles in the area.