The news of leatherback turtle hatchlings being crushed by bulldozers on a beach in Trinidad this past weekend has garnered international media attention as well as concern in the blogosphere. The incident happened when the Ministry of Works was attempting to re-route the Grande Riviere river in order to address the issue of beach erosion in the area, which is one of the preferred nesting sites for the endangered leatherback turtle. Turtle hatching season generally runs from March to December, with May and June being the months of highest concentration.
Some reports suggested that as many as 20,000 eggs and hatchlings were killed. A statement from the country's Environmental Management Authority, however, estimated the losses to be closer to “a few hundred”. The EMA has maintained that it has tried to be responsive to environmental concerns in its efforts to halt the beach erosion. This perceived downplaying of the destruction by the relevant state bodies has irritated both mainstream media and bloggers alike. An editorial two days ago in a leading local newspaper plainly stated that:
The Environmental Management Authority's attempt to spin the destruction of turtle eggs and hatchlings does not reflect positively on the Authority's commitment to conservation.
Newly appointed Environment Minister Ganga Singh…insisted that ‘the impact has not been as severe as has been claimed and circumstances were created where the authorities were made to appear to have been negligent.’ Yet he also admitted that ‘things were not done in the best way', which at the very least means that some level of incompetence led to this decimation of an endangered species. And this, really, is the crux of the matter.
Netizens, meanwhile, turned to Twitter (under the hashtags #turtles #trinidad) and Facebook to voice their dismay – about the death of the turtles and about the failure of state agencies to take adequate responsibility.
@ClippertonTweet thought that the whole situation could have been avoided with proper planning:
Others, like @KasindraMaharaj, were concerned about the negative publicity for the country and its eco-tourism sector, in light of the Minister of Tourism's statement that this type of “disaster” should never be repeated:
Papa Bois Conservation, an environmental non-governmental organisation with a public Facebook page, was very vocal about the blunder. Addressing the position of the EMA on the matter, the group commented:
The crucial questions aren't being addressed: The problem was ongoing from December. The Drainage Division of the Ministry of Works was notified about the erosion 6 weeks ago- why was no action was taken. Residents say they made reports months before- why no action was taken. Why was there no qualified supervision of the earthworks at what is one of the world's most environmentally sensitive beaches? Was there any study done to investigate the least destructive way of dealing with the issue? What is being done to ensure this won't happen again? How many more eggs could have been saved if the response had been prompt, planned and executed according to best practices? Come on, we want real answers, and real solutions.
In her outrage over the debacle, political blogger The Eternal Pantomime posted a link to a previous post she had written about the present government's “Seven Pillars of Development”. The blogger also seemed mistrustful of the Environmental Management Authority:
The EMA believes that this emergency action will have some positive impact on the overall population of Leatherback turtles nesting in Grande Riviere. At the beginning of June I visited Grande Riviere and noticed the erosion taking place on the beach. Coastal erosion is nothing new in the area. In previous years under past regimes repair work, such as was undertaken over the weekend, has been done, but not during the hatching and nesting phases of the leatherback turtle season. It’s no news that this current government has no environmental policy.
Mt Plaisir Estate in Grande Riviere is a conservation site. To do any sort of work there would require a particular process, the least of which would be a Certificate of Environmental Clearance and of course requisite personnel would have to be onsite. The EMA, the body that should be protecting the environment is…playing the numbers game and obscuring the real issue.
But The Caribbean Institute of Sustainability, a non-profit “Think and Do Tank” devoted to the preservation of the people and environment of the Caribbean region, which focuses on applied solutions which yield environmental, economic and social benefits, yesterday posted a statement on its Facebook page, which took a measured approach to the incident and made the point that both traditional and social media's coverage of the situation was not always factual:
Over the last forty eight hours there has been global attention paid to the events on Grand Riviere Beach in northeast Trinidad, regarding endangered Leatherback turtles, and the efforts by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to deal with serious erosion at the site which is threatening nesting sites and properties along the beachfront. Unfortunately, much of what has been written and spread around the world is simply not factual. Sensationalism and untruths will not help to preserve these animals.
Several months ago, the Grand Riviere River, which flows into the sea at the beach, changed its course during a high flow event following heavy rainfall. The river's mouth moved over 100 meters west of its typical location. This change meant that the river ran parallel to the seafront in this area, eroding the area in front of hotels, guest houses, residences and other structures. This left a narrow strip of beach, approximately 30 meters wide, between the river and the waves. Leatherback turtles laid thousands of eggs in this strip over the last few months. Unfortunately, with water now on both sides of the area, the majority of the nests became inundated, waterlogged, preventing the eggs from maturing. Thousands of hatchlings never made it.
It also noted that Steven Greenleaf, President of the NGO and “an experienced ecologist and natural resource conservation professional” visited the site and “spoke to villagers…members of the Grand Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, who are the people actually there on the ground with the turtles…biologists, conservationists, fishermen, and government officials”:
Among those he spoke to there was complete consensus that the project to redirect the river was necessary and in fact will probably save tens of thousands of hatchlings during this nesting season alone, while also protecting properties which depend on, and are part of the ecotourism industry in this village. Certainly some viable hatchlings were killed. The best estimates given by turtle conservationists who were actually there was between 100 and 200 viable hatchlings were killed, not the ‘Thousands,’ which were reported. Certainly the whole event could have and should have been handled better, particularly from a communications and outreach perspective. The excavation works should ideally have been done earlier in the year but coordination between different government agencies to get the equipment to the site took time, an example of where inter-agency coordination needs to be improved.
The statement also offered valuable new information:
Another river enters the sea at Grand Riviere beach and it has changed its course in a similar fashion. However, this smaller stream with its new course, is threatening an area with much higher numbers of nests and viable hatchlings than the Grand Riviere river was impacting. The conservationists and residents present pleaded with the government officials not to remove the excavation equipment without addressing this second stream as well, a fact that we hope all will remember if in the next few days, another sensationalised and irresponsible story hits the wires about another, ‘Turtle Slaughter.’
Leatherback turtles…are endangered. They are a treasure which we all have a responsibility to honor and protect. The fact that this story has received such a passionate response from around the world is good news for the turtles. However…reckless sensationalism…does not help these animals, and it does a great disservice to the dedicated people who have worked for years to protect them…
While there is the need for real improvement in the management of the environment in Trinidad and Tobago, the way this story has reached around the world, in the form that it did, has done a disservice to the nation of Trinidad and Tobago.