Nairobi/Bonn, 7 August 2001 - Urgent international efforts
are needed to conserve West Africa's sea turtles with studies
showing that the region holds some of the world's most important
feeding and nesting sites, many of them under threat.
The call is being made by officials with the Convention
on Migratory Species (CMS) which has commissioned the first
ever comprehensive report into sea turtles on the Atlantic
coast of Africa.
The international treaty body, which is linked to the United
Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is charged with conserving
the world's vast array of migratory animals.
Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, says: "The
report's findings should spur us all on to re-double efforts
to protect sea turtles on Africa's Atlantic coast. In the
Western Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, populations of sea turtles
have been falling dramatically in recent years. This makes
these findings in Western Africa doubly significant given
its now undoubted status as a globally important region
for sea turtle species".
The report points out that the long beaches of southern
Gabon hold the largest number of Leatherback turtles in
the world, ahead even of French Guiana in South America.
A newly discovered population of Loggerheads, which may
be the largest in the Atlantic, has also been discovered
on Boa Vista, part of the Cape Verde group of islands.
Meanwhile Mauritania, with significant areas of sea grass
beds, is considered to have the most important feeding grounds
for Green turtles in West Africa.
Olive Ridley turtles, whose numbers are in sharp decline
in South America, can be found nesting from Guinea-Bissau
all the way to Angola, the new report says.
Douglas Hykle, Deputy Executive Secretary of the CMS secretariat,
says: "Africa has been one of the last frontiers in
marine turtle research and conservation. This report gives
us our first, comprehensive, picture of how important the
Atlantic coast is to sea turtles while underlining the real
threats to the survival of the six species it surveys. It
is clear that action at international, regional and national
level is urgently needed if these extraordinary marine animals
are to survive and thrive for future generations".
"Traditional subsistence use of sea turtles is permitted,
but large numbers are being systematically slaughtered for
meat and their eggs sold for food, beyond what is sustainable.
Considerable numbers are dying after becoming entangled
in fishing nets. Others are being killed for their shell,
which is carved into ornaments or used for making tourist
trinkets. Indeed there appears to be a trade in turtle shell
both within and between some countries in the region, often
in defiance of international trade laws on endangered species.
This phenomenon is not just limited to Africa. Marine turtles
are highly migratory species. Satellite tracking and other
evidence shows us that sea turtles found along the African
Atlantic coast have come to feed or breed from as far away
as South and North America," he said.
The report, Biogeography and Conservation of Marine Turtles
of the Atlantic Coast of Africa, has been written and compiled
by Jacques Fretey, an internationally renowned sea turtle
researcher and expert of the French Committee of IUCN -
The World Conservation Union.
It draws on observations and studies from a wide range
of experts going back over a century to provide a comprehensive
review of the status and known nesting sites of the Loggerhead
(Caretta caretta), Green (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback (Dermochelys
coriacea), Hawksbill ( Eretmochelys imbricata), Kemp's or
Atlantic Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) and Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys
olivacea) turtles in every range state from Morocco to South
Country highlights from the report
On Cape Verde's Boa Vista and Sal islands a significant
reproductive stock of Loggerhead turtles has recently been
discovered "that could prove to be one of the largest
in the Atlantic". Luis Felipe Lopez, a researcher
at the University of the Canaries, Las Palmas, which has
been assessing the remarkable find, said:"We have found
that the population from Cape Verde is the third largest
in the world after Oman's Massirah Island and the United
States. In terms of the Atlantic it is the second largest,
after the US. Our first estimate is that around 2,000 females
can be found at Cape Verde with 70 per cent at Boa Vista
The report reveals that hunting of turtles here can be
dated back possibly as far as 1479 when the French explorer
Eustache de la Fosse reported that leprosy was treated locally
by a diet of turtle meat and by rubbing the affected areas
with turtle blood. Louis XI, who believed he was suffering
from leprosy, dispatched his representative to the Cape
Verde Islands to investigate after learning of the "cure".
Hunting continues to the present day with one eye-witness,
quoted in the report, saying: "Along 30km of sandy
beaches more than 40 loggerheads were found, mostly heavily
injured with bone and skull fractures, obviously by humans.
Marine turtles are constantly slaughtered during egg-deposition".
There are two very important National Parks: Banc d'Arguin
and Levrier's Bay. Banc d'Arguin's "marine zone includes
an exceptional reserve of sea grasses making this one of
the most significant West African feeding grounds"
for the Green turtle.
The report says Guinea-Bissau is one of the richest areas
in the whole region for marine turtles but adds: "Captures
in the sea or on the ground as well as poaching of nests
is threatening all age groups".
Ghana has 'highly structured" wildlife laws but needs
to review their adequacy and enforcement in relation to
sea turtles, the report says. "Many females are killed
and nests are poached. Other threats to nests include domestic
pigs, wild dogs and the theft of sand for construction,"
However the report notes that guards have been trained
to monitor nesting beaches and that solutions are being
sought to protect nests from predators.
Green, Olive Ridley and Leatherback turtles can be found
nesting in Benin. But the report raises concern that "systematic
killing of females on land and poaching of nests unfortunately
continues. Commerce in turtle products is commonplace particularly
the sale of shells to tourists". Leatherback fat is
also turned into an oil which reputedly has medicinal properties.
It is hoped that a tagging project, supported by BIOTOPIC
which is a Netherlands-based foundation, will lead to a
rapid establishment of a National Action Plan.
Equatorial Guinea and Gabon
The two countries share Corisco Bay which possess exceptional
sea grasses. Along with those found in Mauritania and Angola,
these areas represent the region's key feeding grounds for
the Green turtle. Nesting beaches south of Bioko in Equatorial
Guinea are of primary regional importance for the species
A transborder study and wildlife agreement between the
two countries is needed to end the exploitation of Green
turtles by the local Benga people, the report argues.
One eye-witness, quoted in the report, says:"The inhabitants
of the Bay of Corisco have incorporated turtle hunting in
their way of life for many generations. Recently, however,
turtles have switched from being a source of subsistence
protein for local consumption to being a highly quoted market
product in great demand in the cities, especially Libreville
and Bata. Although some turtles are captured incidentally
in fine-mesh fishing nets, most are hunted with special
nets, harpoons or underwater guns. There are approximately
50 fishermen around the Bay of Corisco dedicated exclusively
to capturing sea turtles".
The report also points out that Gabon's reproductive stock
of Leatherbacks is "the second largest in the world,
if not the first". Yet it adds that: "Female Leatherback
turtles are systematically killed on the beaches and eggs
Money is needed for guards and international funds for
monitoring of Leatherback nesting sites is also urgently
required. Similar work should also be carried out for the
Green, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles in Gabon.
Sao Tome and Principe
The island of Sao Tome has the greatest diversity of sea
turtles in the whole region with males, females and young
Green, Olive Ridley, Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles in
its coastal waters. The same species also nest on its beaches.
The European Union-funded "Tato project" has
helped dramatically reduce consumption of turtle meat and
eggs, but is in need of longer-term financing to remain
viable. Substitute products are starting to replace turtle
The report makes a series of recommendations to save and
protect five of the six species studied on Africa's Atlantic
Conservation priorities for the species should focus on
nesting sites in Cape Verde and sub-adult turtles in the
waters around the Azores, the Archipelago of Maderia, the
Canary Islands and Cape Verde.
Green turtles grow and develop throughout the waters off
Northwest Africa, Guinea and in the South-Central Atlantic
Ocean. Special attention should be given to these
areas which are often threatened by pollution from towns
Sea grass areas in Mauritania, Senegal and in Equatorial
Guinea and Gabon's Corisco Bay need urgently mapping and
monitoring to assess their health. "It is imperative
that these internationally important feeding grounds be
included in national and trans-border marine reserves".
"Given the dramatic decline of Olive Ridley in the
Western Atlantic, all African nesting sites should be considered
to be priority areas with particular attention given to
beaches in the Bijagos Archipelago, Sierra Leone, Cote D'Ivoire,
Ghana, southern Cameroon, Sao Tome, Bioko, Angola and possibly
Gabon," says the report
Tough new laws and better customs searches are needed in
Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe to crack down on the
turtle-shell craft industry. Countries which have not ratified
the Convention on Migratory Species and the Convention on
the International Trade in Endangered Species are urged
to do so.
"The top priority for conservation of the species
is Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe
where the species appears to nest regularly," says
"With the dramatic fall in populations of the species
in the Pacific Ocean, one of the key priorities ……….must
obviously focus on Gabon and the Congo". The report
recommends that a trans-border marine park joining Mayumba
and Conkouati, staffed with anti-poaching teams, be set
Notes To Editors: Biogeography and Conservation
of Marine Turtles of the Atlantic Coast of Africa by Jacques
Fretey (CMS Technical Series No.6) is published in English
and French by UNEP/CMS Secretariat, United Nations Premises
in Bonn, Martin Luther King Str.8, D-53175, Bonn, Germany.
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UNEP News Release 01/92