South Pacific’s Largest Hawksbill Turtle Rookery Recovering after 150 years of Exploitation
Peer Reviewed Paper Shows 200% Increase
The Nature Conservancy and partners’ recently-published PLOS ONE paper shows that the South Pacific’s largest hawksbill turtle rookery shows signs of recovery after 150 years of excessive exploitation. This study analyzed 22 years of data on hawksbill turtles in the Arnavons, located in the Solomon Islands, including beach counts and turtle tagging data. The results show a dramatic increase in turtle populations -- the only example of such a recovery in the region.
Since The Nature Conservancy, local communities, and the Islands’ government have partnered to save the world’s critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, the local population has doubled in the past 20 years. This is a 200% increase from record lows in the 1990s when the turtles had been hunted to the brink of extinction.
“Turtles are at 10% of their numbers they were at a century ago, and roughly only one out of every 1,000 turtle eggs make it to adulthood,” said Richard Hamilton, Melanesia Program Director, The Nature Conservancy and PLOS ONE lead author. “This remarkable recovery shows that changes in policy, inclusive community-based management, and long-term commitment can turn the tide for one of the most charismatic and endangered species on our planet.”
First evidence of recovery for a western Pacific hawksbill rookery, with the number of nests laid at the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area and remigration rates of turtles doubling since the area’s establishment in 1995 and the national ban on exporting turtles.
Many of the hawksbill turtles that nest at the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area forage in distant Australian waters, and nesting on the Arnavons occurs throughout the year, with peak nesting activity coinciding with the austral winter.
The future of the Arnavons hawksbill turtle is far from secure, and collaborative conservation efforts need to continue. Sea level rise encroaching on turtle nests, subsistence harvesting in inter-nesting areas, poaching, illegal trade, destruction of nesting beaches by commercial logging operations, and proposed mining at nearby islands all threaten its viability. But despite all these challenges, the hawksbill’s extraordinary recovery is an inspiring story and a model for future sea turtle efforts.
“When we look back 150 years, the Solomon Islands supported one of the great hawksbill breeding populations for the world. As a result of over exploitation from the late 1800s through the 1900s, the population was decimated but remained the largest hawksbill turtle nesting population within the Pacific Island Nations. With concerted conservation actions across recent decades, The Nature Conservancy and the Solomon Island Government in particular have reversed the long term decline in the Arnavon hawksbill turtle breeding population. There is a clear message here that severely depleted marine turtle populations can be recovered but it takes decades of well-focused conservation actions,” said Colin Limpus, Scientific Councilor for marine turtle, UNEP Convention for Conservation of Migratory Species and PLOS ONE co-author.
Benefits for Turtles and People
Located in the world’s epicenter of marine diversity, the Solomon Islands is home to vibrant coral reefs and thousands of fish species, as well as important nesting beaches for critically endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles.
The Nature Conservancy worked with local communities and governments to protect sea turtles and other important marine life by establishing networks of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that support biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods. But the Conservancy and our partners recognize that MPAs alone are not enough to address this critical issue: We also need to develop new strategies to protect and patrol turtle nesting beaches, conserve their habitats both in the water and on land and help communities create environmentally friendly alternatives to turtle hunting, such as ecotourism and sustainable fisheries.
The Conservancy pioneered innovative community-based conservation strategies in the Arnavons that are generating crucial benefits for both sea turtles and people. The challenge now is to extend the Conservancy’s community-based coastal and forest conservation strategies to other communities with priority sea turtle conservation areas. These “ridges to reefs” strategies will not only help secure the future for leatherback and hawksbill turtles, but also for wide array of species, including humans, that depend on the lush forests and dazzling coral reefs nearby.
“The hawksbill turtles that nest at the Arnavons have tremendous cultural significance to the people of Kia, Wagina, and Katupika. The successful recovery that we are witnessing at the Arnavons wouldn’t have been possible without The Nature Conservancy’s assistance over the past three decades,” said Ivan Rotu, Kia community member and Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area Management Committee Board member.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org
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