Who? Ward Koehler (24) MSc student of Biology
What? Internship at Project Biodiversity
Where? Sal, Cape Verde
‘On Sal, one of the Cape Verde islands, I spent four and a half months helping on a sea turtle conservation project. Poachers are the biggest threat to the Cape Verde loggerhead turtles, especially to the females that come up the beaches to lay their eggs. As a field assistant, it was my task to protect the turtles against the poachers, to move threatened nests, to train volunteers, to talk to tourists and to collect as much scientific information as I could about the population.
Disturbed by turtles
To prevent poaching, we patrolled the main beaches all night in two shifts of about eight hours. During the day we were usually busy moving nests, processing data, maintaining the camp, spreading information and doing loads of other jobs. I didn’t get much sleep either. And the little sleep I got was sometimes disturbed by a turtle crawling over me.
Chronic lack of sleep
Our team was made up of both local and international staff. We were also supported by international volunteers. We all slept in tents next to a kite-surfing school. We only had one day off a week, so there wasn’t much time for having fun outside the project. To start with, we often went out in Santa Maria on our folga (Creole for day off), but after a while you are so short of sleep you are just too tired for that. The best thing about the folgas was the delicious caipirinha on the beach, where we could always enjoy ourselves however tired we were. I did snorkel as much as possible and I helped with a project on monitoring the bird population. To reach one of the brooding places we had to snorkel for three quarters of an hour and scale a steep cliff face.
Although confrontations with poachers were rare, that had not always been the case. So we patrolled a few of the beaches with a military escort. On one occasion I nearly ran into a poacher myself. While we were on patrol, we saw a light that came closer and closer, and then suddenly went out. When we went towards it, we found a turtle on her back. There was no one to be seen. The poacher probably ran away as soon as we saw him. If we hadn’t noticed the light, he would probably have dragged the turtle off the beach and chopped her up to sell the meat. Many of the poachers are fishers who want to earn a bit extra. The meat of a turtle can fetch 50 to 100 euros, but for them it is a significant income source. So only patrolling is pointless: education and an equal distribution of tourism revenues are just as important.