Slowly dragging its shell onto the beach, a
turtle emerges from the ocean. It is midnight and the moon is casting its shadow
over the remote, white-sandy coastline of Boa Vista — one of the ten islands
that make up the West African island-nation of Cape Verde.
The strong sea breeze does not seem to bother the turtle as it slowly, but determinedly, finds its way among the dunes in search of a safe spot to lay its eggs. Once found, a two-hour ritual then begins as the prehistoric sea creature meticulously digs a 30cm hole with its rear flippers. This exhausting exercise will provide a nest for more than 40 whitish, golfball-sized eggs. After covering the hole with its hidden treasures, the turtle will slowly return to the sea, never to know what becomes of her offspring.
Later that night and further on down the beach, dozens of turtle hatchlings break through another nest after days of digging, only to begin their frenzied and chaotic rush towards the waves.
Every year, from late May to September, more than 3,000 loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) come ashore on Cape Verde’s beaches, particularly at Ervatao beach, the third most important loggerhead nesting site in the world after Oman’s Massirah Island and the Floridian keys. Amazingly enough, the Boa Vista site was discovered only a few years ago.
“Marine turtles have been wiped out on almost all of the other Cape Verdean islands, but they have thrived so far on Boa Vista where human predation and pressure is lower,” says Dr Luis Felipe Lopez, a 64 year-old Spanish biology professor from Las Palmas University. Lopez is leading a local conservation group, Natura 2000, to protect the turtles’ nesting habitat at Ervatao.
With only 4,200 people living on the 620km2 island — mostly inhabiting the small town of Sal Rei and a few neighbouring villages — Boa Vista is one of the archipelago’s most pristine islands. But for how long?
Tourist attraction or turtle destruction
Ironically, the island’s biggest threat — and by extension a threat to the turtles — may come from the unspoiled coastline itself. With 50km of beautiful, uninhabited beaches, the island is likely to become a magnet for sun-seekers, especially if the government’s plans to develop the area for tourism go through.
Because of poor soils and regular droughts, only 10 per cent of Cape Verde’s land is suitable for agriculture. Like other small-island states with limited resources, the government is trying to boost revenue through tourism development, including actively promoting foreign investments throughout the archipelago. This strategy is starting to pay off as the number of tourists visiting Cape Verde has jumped from 67,000 in 2000 to 178,000 in 2004, with about 60 per cent of all visitors coming from Italy, Germany, and its former colonial ruler, Portugal.
Boa Vista is part of the development strategy. The island now has the second most hotel rooms in Cape Verde, with more than 1,200 beds in 12 hotels. Four more are under construction, including two large resorts that will double the island’s accommodation capacity. Some suggest that future tourism development will increase the island’s capacity to 30,000 beds within 20 years.
To help reach that projection, Boa Vista has been chosen as the site of one of three planned international airports. Currently, there is only one main international airport on the island of Sal.
“With the new airport, we believe that up to one million tourists could visit Boa Vista each year,” says Ricardo Monteiro, WWF’s Programme Officer in Cape Verde.
“However, the planning process lacks transparency. Nothing has been done to assess the potential effect of land speculation, inflation, and increased immigration to the island. And, it does not address the likely negative impact on the natural beauty and biodiversity of the island.”
When Portuguese mariners first landed on the Cape Verde islands in 1456, the vegetation was so green that they named the place “green cape”. But severe, recurrent droughts since the 18th century have destroyed most of that green cover.
Nonetheless, Cape Verde still hosts a high degree of biodiversity, featuring many species of animals and plants that are found nowhere else. These include four species of birds — the Cape Verde sparrow (Passer iagoensis), the Cape Verde swift (Apus alexandri), the endangered raso lark (Alauda razae), and the Cape Verde warbler (Acrocephalus brevipennis), as well as 12 species of lizards, 5 small bats and some 92 species of plants, such as the endangered marmulan tree (Sideroxylon mermulana).
The surrounding waters of the Atlantic Ocean provide important feeding grounds for marine turtles and breeding humpback whales, as well as fishing grounds for both local and international fishers. Recent studies have also found coral reefs of global significance off the coast of several of the islands, and the João Valente seamount — an underwater mountain range between the islands of Boa Vista and Maio — is a unique marine environment hosting a high concentration of fish and other species.
With help from WWF and Natura 2000, the government has identified and declared 47 protected areas throughout the archipelago. At the international level, the country has recently joined the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), and Boa Vista’s Curral Velho wetland will soon be added to the Ramsar list of wetlands on international importance.
“There are rays of hope as the government starts to realize that it must take the protection of the environment seriously,” says Celeste Benchimol, coordinator of WWF’s marine and coastal biodiversity conservation project in Cape Verde. “They need to strengthen their environmental legislation, as well as conduct environmental impact assessments. These should be carried by independent experts and not by tourism investors themselves.”
WWF fears that certain areas slated for tourism development are adjacent to, or overlap with, protected areas.
“Criteria for selecting these zones are not always transparent, and they usually lack clear marked boundaries and management plans,” Benchimol added.
For example, a project on the Island of Sal aims to build a marina and a tourist resort for 15,000 people in the middle of a marine protected area where humpback whales feed. Around Praia, Cape Verde’s capital, large-scale tourism projects are already being developed, copying the successes of the “nearby” Canary Islands — some 1,500km to the north. But not everyone wants Cape Verde to become one big resort.
“We believe tourism is not only sea and sun,” stresses Filomena Ribeiro, Cape Verde’s Tourism Director. “We don’t want to be the next Canary Islands. We have learned from our initial mistakes when we developed tourism infrastructure without control.”
WWF, together with Wetlands International, is working with the government and local communities to protect the marine and coastal biodiversity of the archipelago by developing and implementing sound environmental management plans. The project is also contributing to the creation of more marine protected areas and the protection of such key species as marine turtles and whales.
“Given the strategic economic importance of tourism to the country it is vitally important to develop and implement policies and practices that will ensure sustainability,” says Arona Soumare, WWF’s Marine Protected Areas Programme Officer based in Dakar, Senegal. “Ultimately, authorities need to understand that it is better to implement sound tourism practices on a wider territory than to allow massive, destructive, operations in a concentrated area as they plan in Boa Vista.”
Returning to sea
Hunting turtles in Cape Verde dates back as far as the 15th century, when European explorers reported that leprosy was being treated locally by a diet of turtle meat and by rubbing the affected areas with turtle blood. Even today, unemployed villagers near Ervatao beach occasionally hunt turtles to feed their families. But, as marine turtles are among the most endangered species on the planet, environmental groups are doing their best to protect the nesting beach from further poaching.
Natura 2000 is currently working on a turtle conservation project that assesses the status, distribution, and abundance of marine turtles in Cape Verde. To date, the team of scientists and volunteers has tagged thousands of loggerheads on the beaches of Boa Vista. Some turtles are being equipped with satellite transmitters that will enable researchers to track their migratory routes and feeding areas. Natura 2000 also regularly offers training to turtle specialists from Cape Verde and other West African countries, and is partnering with WWF on an ecotourism programme based on turtle watching.
“We will employ guides from the local communities,” says Dr Lopez. “If locals can be directly involved in, and benefit from, turtle protection, the beach will remain a paradise for the endangered loggerhead.”
It is dawn on Ervatao and Dr Lopez, helped by a couple of young volunteers, is counting, weighing and measuring loggerhead hatchlings recently born at a protected hatchery set up on the beach. Volunteers and project staff alike bring eggs taken from nests likely to be destroyed by the tide. Once examined and documented, the hatchlings are released to the sea.
“What happens at sea is anyone’s guess,” Lopez says, “but here on land we are doing everything we can to ensure their survival.”