Turtle Conservation at Meru Betiri National Park, Sukamade, Banyuwangi

James Ogilvie – England

The Meru Betiri National Park and Wildlife Reserve is located on the south coast of Java and is home to Sukamade Beach, the most important sea turtle nesting site remaining in Java. Last weekend I travelled to Meru Betiri National Park to work on a turtle conservation program with Yusuke and five other members of Tunas Hijau. It is less than 200 miles away from Surabaya, as the crow flies, but was an horrendous fifteen hour drive on Indonesia’s bumpy roads. We finally arrived on Saturday afternoon, after walking the last 10 miles with all our stuff!

Every night several turtles land on Sukamade beach to find a nesting spot to lay their eggs. After digging a hole in the sand they lay as many as 200 eggs, before burying them and returning to the sea. However, left to their own devices, less than 1% of these eggs will successfully hatch and return to the sea; this is due to predators such as seagulls and other animals who eat the eggs before they can hatch. The Conservation Team at Meru Betiri monitor and log the number of turtles who lay eggs on the beach, and they also remove the eggs from the beach and take them to a safe compound further inland where they can safely grow and eventually hatch. By doing this, they are significantly increasing the amount of baby turtles that are born, which is great for the worldwide turtle population.

On Saturday evening, we were able to accompany the conservation team to the beach to work on the turtle monitoring program. However, we were not the only ones, as there was a large group of school children who were presumably on a school trip to see the turtles. As soon as one turtle had landed on the beach and made it’s way to the top of the beach and dug a hole to lay its eggs, one of the local team signalled and everyone ran, literally, and gathered around the poor turtle. It must have been terrified to have so many loud people with mobile phones, cameras, lighters and torches, and especially scared of those people who were prodding and poking it and balancing plastic bottles on its back. The children seemed to have no regard for the turtle or for the environment; for example, many were smoking and just throwing the cigarette butts onto the beach.

It was amazing to see such a huge turtle in the wild, and the sight of it disappearing into the surf as it left the beach was incredible, but the experience was seriously ruined by the presence and behaviour of the school children on the beach. Allowing these children to be able to pay to go and, essentially, harass the turtles was a level of exploitation that I did not expect to find on a quiet beach in an Indonesian National Park. Apparently four more turtles landed on the beach that evening, but they all swiftly returned to the sea due to the loud noise and excessive lights coming from the beach.

Personally, I think it is great that a dedicated team of people work so hard to conserve the turtle population. However, I strongly believe that this task should be carried out discretely by a small number of experts, and should not be observed by large numbers of obnoxious school children. Surely the presence and behaviour of so many people on the beach is severely detrimental to the creatures that they are trying to protect. What I experienced on Saturday night was not turtle conservation, it was turtle tourism, and that is just not right.