11 Aug 2023

Fauna / Ecosystems at risk as West Africa’s sea turtles decline

West Africa’s governments must protect this important species by partnering with NGOs working on their conservation.

©Institute for Security Studies

Over 1.1 million sea turtles were illegally killed or trafficked worldwide between 1990 and 2020, researchers estimate. To put this in perspective, there are only about 6.5 million sea turtles left in the world.

West Africa contributes significantly to the exploitation of sea turtles. In just one incident in June 2021, 555 sea turtles being trafficked from Bamako in Mali and Lomé in Togo were seized by customs officers in Burkina Faso. It is also estimated that up to 50% of sea turtle eggs in Togo are trafficked by local fishers.

While pollution, accidental fishing and climate change are contributing to the decline of sea turtles around Africa’s coast, poaching and trafficking remain the major drivers. Shells seized alongside large quantities of elephant ivory in Togo and Benin indicate that sea turtles may form part of a well-organised wildlife trafficking network in West Africa, specifically Togo, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The West African littoral is home to some of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in the world, and five species that live along this coast are at high risk of extinction. The loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, green and olive ridley marine turtles are categorised as being between vulnerable and critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Sea turtles are an important resource for coastal communities worldwide. They have been hunted for their meat, eggs, shell, skin and internal organs for thousands of years. In Togo, sea turtle is valued for its flesh (often considered a luxury dish) and shell. Sea turtle products are used to make jewellery, handicrafts, cough syrup and oil for traditional medicine in many West African countries. Some believe turtle by-products have aphrodisiac properties.

In just one incident, 555 sea turtles being trafficked from Mali and Togo were seized in Burkina Faso

Their trafficking is driven by personal use and consumption in local communities. A lack of economic alternatives for coastal communities and a decrease in the fish stocks they rely on for food and income mean that sea turtle poaching has now become a viable income source. As a result, a well-organised illegal market for turtle meat controlled by local poachers is thriving.

Poachers target the turtles at sea and hunt both them and their nests on beaches. They are then trafficked along trade routes throughout the region – including Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Benin and Cameroon – where they are sold to traders at local markets.

The poaching of sea turtles threatens biodiversity. This creature plays a major role in the marine ecosystem by preserving healthy seagrass beds, limiting marine sponge growth and keeping jellyfish populations in check. This is crucial for maintaining healthy coral reefs, which in turn sustain and provide protection for a variety of fish species. Other wildlife species, such as dolphins and aquatic birds, are hunted alongside sea turtles.

West African states are aware that sea turtles are endangered. All member states of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which addresses the illegal trade and trafficking of wildlife. And although legislation exists to protect and preserve sea turtles in most West African states, its implementation is lacking.

Law enforcement around sea turtle poaching and trafficking is weak at best. Offenders caught poaching sea turtles receive only a warning, with no fine. Little is done to dissuade people from poaching, killing or selling sea turtles, or to tackle the illegal hunting and harvesting of their eggs.

Poaching and trafficking remain the major reasons for the decline in sea turtle populations

Over the past 20 years, West African states have created marine protected areas (MPAs) such as the Bijol Islands in The Gambia or the Keta Lagoon in Ghana to protect sea turtles. However, authorities and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) lack adequate human and financial resources, and technical means to monitor and protect these areas.

Patrols do not have the necessary manpower or equipment to mark all nests with stakes and record their locations, or cover them with cages, for example. International NGOs are therefore in charge of this task, which is neither financially sustainable nor politically appropriate in the long term.

In March 2022, African states organised the first African congress on sea turtles in Cotonou, Benin. Here states also created regional networks such as the West African Sea Turtle Conservation Network. This is a positive step towards better sea turtle management and an indication that states intend to take the matter more seriously.

Yet much more needs to be done.

West African states and relevant authorities should strengthen the work of local NGOs by partnering with them to protect sea turtles and their eggs from poaching and trafficking. Financial and technical resources are needed for this, as well as an investment in training people to educate local communities.

Patrols don’t have the manpower or equipment to mark all nests with stakes and record their locations

Local and national authorities, together with NGOs, should inform and constantly remind local communities that hunting sea turtles will eventually lead to their extinction. And that this will negatively impact the entire marine ecosystem, including the disappearance of some fish species, which will threaten the livelihoods of local fishing communities.

Unless other viable livelihood solutions are presented to local populations, sea turtles will remain a target for many trying to make a living.

Côte d’Ivoire provides a good practice example, where Conversation des Espèces Marines (CEM) works with local NGOs and communities to develop ecotourism in the area. This not only creates employment in the hotel and catering industries through ecotourism activities, but it also raises awareness among local communities of the value of sea turtles.

Measures have also been implemented to provide services to the local population, such as installing solar-powered drinking-water supply systems, building local health centres and rebuilding primary schools. CEM has found that building community infrastructure together with the inhabitants, many of whom had been involved in sea turtle poaching or consumption in the past, helps to ensure buy-in for the sea turtle conservation project. Better infrastructure, education and alternative sources of income help to limit sea turtle poaching in coastal communities.

In addition, law 2017-378, which established Côte d’Ivoire’s first MPA in Grand-Béréby, paved the way for the creation of a protected zone for nesting turtles in Dogbalé-Mani-Kablaké, with the help of the local communities.

The potential extinction of sea turtles poses a major threat to coastal ecosystems in West Africa and beyond. Together with international and local NGOs – which play an invaluable role and should be supported to continue this work – West Africa’s governments must drive the protection of this important species.

Abdelkader Abderrahmane, Senior Researcher, ENACT, West Africa


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