Mission accomplished: turtles on track

28 Feb 2017 Mission accomplished: turtles on track

Published in Wanted 28 February 2017

It’s been three years since I flew in glass-bottomed helicopter from Maputo to White Pearl Resorts’ little piece of paradise at Ponta Mamoli in south-eastern Mozambique.

From November to February, one of the main reasons guests visit is in the hope of finding sea turtles crawling up the beach to nest at night. In Mozambique, this is the most important breeding area for leatherback and loggerhead turtles. The leatherback breeding group is small and they are critically endangered.

 

White Pearl Resort

Miguel Gonçalves, park warden of Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve, a Mozambique government institution with support from Peace Parks, has been heavily involved in turtle conservation for years. “Since 2009, when six turtles were poached between Ponta do Ouro and Malongane, we’ve had monitors patrolling the area and made local leaders aware of their work. It’s about education,” he says.

Their efforts are paying off as not one turtle was found dead this season.

Turtle monitors Pierre and Yvonne Lombard have been tracking breeding activity here since 1994, when they lived in Malongane with their young sons. “We love nature and we love the turtles; it’s a family thing,” says Yvonne. They left Mozambique in 1997 to invest in Botswana but have returned each year to pursue their passion. Theirs is the only data referenced by the Peace Parks Foundation and South African conservationists monitoring the movements of this transfrontier breeding group. From early recordings of 25 to 30 new loggerhead turtles, they now tag over 100 new ones annually. This year, they tagged another 122 turtles.

We’d met them previously on a guided walk in search of nesting sites, and they’d agreed to let me join them on a subsequent night drive. “The only time you’ll see a turtle on the beach is when she needs to nest, otherwise there’s something wrong,” says Pierre. “We have to ensure minimal disturbances on the beach, especially during nesting season — no people, no vehicles, no lights, no dogs. If the females are disturbed while searching for a site, they’ll return to the water and try again later, but they can only hold their eggs back for 48 to 72 hours. By the third night, if they haven’t been able to nest, they’ll drop their load to make way for the next 120 eggs.”

Even on a guided walk, it’s essential to keep the use of torchlight to a minimum so as not to scare the turtles back into the water. The Lombards believe it’s important for escorted groups to be able to touch, feel and photograph an egg-laying turtle as long as they stay behind her. By then, she’s in a trance and is oblivious to anything except bright white light. “That experience will help people respect them and remember why it’s so important to protect them,” says Yvonne. “While human contact is not ideal, conservation and protection requires funding and this kind of experience could inspire that.”

turtle

Turtles have a special, built-in way of knowing where they were hatched. With the use of satellite tracking devices, the Foundation has established that the loggerheads go north to their feeding grounds in Maputo, Madagascar, Europa Island and along the Mombasa coastline. After two or three years, they’ll swim up to 3000km to return to this beach to nest.

The leatherbacks breeding group is small, yet stable, with a total of between 10 and 15 each year.

The Lombards go out nightly in breeding season to look for nesting activity. They record the mileage and GPS coordinates at every set of tracks as well as the date, whether there was a nest or not, type of turtle, size and tag numbers. The tides dictate the time of night that the couple travels — strictly 31km in each direction, otherwise their vehicle won’t make it around the point at Mamoli. “We need to tag and go, tag and go. Most of the time I can see by the tracks if there’s a nest or not without even getting out of the car, which saves time,” says Pierre. The sponsorship of a Ford Ranger, arranged by Ford SA through Interauto Ford Agency in Maputo has also assisted the process during the past two years.

“Sea turtles, both loggerheads and leatherbacks, have been protected on the Kosi Bay side since the 1960s and we have the benefit of that now. As development increases around Ponta do Ouro, we’re getting more turtles here where it’s still relatively unspoiled, so we think the breeding group is shifting north,” says Pierre.

Mission accomplished? The tracks tell the story.

White-Pearl

White Pearl Resort

Paradise found
Situated along the untouched shores of the Mozambique coastline, White Pearl Resorts overlooks one of the most magnificent beaches in Africa. Tucked behind casuarina trees, 21 stilted suites provide spectacular ocean views with 15 of the pool suites located on the hillside and six beach pool suites offering direct access to the shore. If you need solitude, room service will be delivered by butler for enjoyment on your private deck 24 hours a day. Days are filled with swimming with the dolphins, diving the coral reefs, marvelling at elephants in the Maputo Special Reserve or guided evening turtle walks. Return from a busy day to White Pearl for a sundowner at the beach bar and delicious local cuisine served in the restaurant.

For more information visit whitepearlresorts.com or call +27 (0) 11 026 2674.