Mayotte, little jewel of the Comoros archipelago in the Indian Ocean, has the second largest closed lagoon in the world with an area of 1 km 100. Its geographical location, at the mouth of the Mozambique Channel, gives it a exceptional biodiversity. A large population of sea turtles come here to feed but also mate in the peaceful waters of the lagoon. But when the time comes to lay, this long and tedious journey they take to go up the Mahoran beaches which saw them being born ten or fifteen years earlier, becomes for some their tomb. Poaching is the main cause of their disappearance, far ahead of attacks by stray dogs or collisions with boats.
-By Gabriel Barathieu special envoy to Mayotte.
In Mayotte there are generally five species. Green turtle (Chelonia mydas), loggerheads (Caretta caretta), olive tree (Lepidochelys olivacea) and Lute (Dermochelys coriacea). The nested is by far the most common.
Hawksbill turtle swimming in S pass
The others are occasionally observed in Mahoran waters outside the lagoon. It is estimated that the lagoon hosts around 3000 turtles a year. This figure can rise to 5000 during egg-laying periods.
A third of Mayotte's beaches are places for turtles to lay their eggs. Those which are poached on the beaches come from the other islands of the Indian Ocean (scattered island, Madagascar, Comoros, African coasts, Seychelles, Réunion, Mauritius etc). They therefore undertake a long journey every 3 to 5 years to come and reproduce on the beaches which saw them born twenty to thirty years earlier.
Green Turtle mating in the lagoon of Mayotte.
Poaching in Mayotte:
The poaching of green turtles, recently highlighted to the general public by Sea Sheperd teams during their Nyamba operation, is unfortunately not new. The consumption of turtle meat is cultural in the Comoros archipelago. Although mentalities have changed in recent decades, poaching is still very much present.
Who are the perpetrators of these killings, for what purpose do they come to massacre the turtles? What traffic is hidden behind, selling turtle meat?
The official report of REMMAT (Mahorais Beaching Network for Marine Mammals and Sea Turtles), founded in 2010, aims to improve our knowledge of sea turtles and marine mammals. And in particular on the causes of their mortality. This network aims to be the widest possible.
According to one of their reports, in 2015, almost 80% of the cause of mortality and distress of Mayotte sea turtles was due to poaching.
Apart from poaching, sea turtles are also threatened by attacks by stray dogs, collisions with boats, accidental fishing or even pollution (ingestion of plastic debris, imprisonment in abandoned fishing gear, etc.).
Between 2011 and 2015, the network identified more than 1000 dead or distressed turtles. A hundred turtles were also able to be rescued by REMMAT members, and some were able to benefit from treatment thanks to the help of veterinarians who are partners in the network.
However, the censuses carried out by REMMAT are not exhaustive and are limited to a limited observation effort, depending on the human and logistical resources available, on the involvement of the general public and users of the sea.
Periodicity of poaching:
Turtles are hunted when they go up to lay their eggs on the beaches. As a result, the majority of victims are female green turtles. Indeed, the monthly variations in the number of poaching acts seem to coincide with the rate of frequentation of nesting beaches by green turtles.
Poaching is most often located on beaches that are difficult to access and fairly isolated. The poaching acts are rather listed on the communes having spawning beaches.
Turtle heads or carapaces are sometimes seen lying on the beaches of the South of the island. But poachers do not always leave evidence of their killings. Their modus operandi is evolving in order to avoid being noticed. They bury the shells in the sand, hide them in the bushes or embark them on their boats and abandon them offshore.
To realize this ecological catastrophe, you just have to go see it for yourself and make an inventory on Papani beach in Petite-Terre.
Papani Beach is said to be one of the most poached beaches on the island, due to its isolation. Surrounded by a steep cliff, its access is very limited and possible only at low tide.
Antoine, an active member of the Oulanga Na Nyamba association, was present every evening in July on Papani beach with members of Sea Sheperd for Operation Nyamba. He knows the place very well. The meeting is fixed at the start of the Lac Dziani path. The path taken runs along this crater and leads to the ocean side. We branch off on another path that leads to the foot of the cliff that runs along the beach. Steep path, makeshift rope to descend the brittle rock from the cliff, the beach is actually difficult to access. The place is magical. The ocher color of the palagonite cliffs borders a magnificent reef covered with an immense herbarium where turtles come to graze. But the fairy tale fades abruptly at the sight of dozens of turtle bones. Some lie between the rocks, tossed about by the waves, others litter the bushes that border the cliff. The observation is clear: the beach is a veritable mass grave of sea turtles. This cemetery, which was originally a place of birth, as indicated by traces of fresh morning twists, is an illustration of the scourge of poaching. Further on, whole shells discovered by the morning tide still smell of putrefaction.
Poached green turtle shells on the beach
They are painted with a paint stroke so that REMAT agents do not double count them.
At the far north of the beach, more than a dozen shells are grouped in single file. This macabre series of corpses could largely cover the entire length of the beach.
Poached green turtle shells on the beach
Antoine stayed every night on the beaches of Petite Terre for a month. He is an active member of the association Oulanga na Nyamba. He knows well the practices of "turtle head cutters": " They have several methods. To start, poachers come discreetly on a beach frequented by turtles and isolated, like Papani for example. They access it by boat léger (boat or canoe), or à foot, by paths. Then when a turtle comes up to lay eggs, they wait until it is high up. They return, et then, depending on the case, cut it on the spot, opening it in two so as not tocupéonly meat, or They'emèwe can see directly using a wheelbarrow, tarpaulin or their boat, to cut it in a more discreet place. All the groups of poachers that we sawçu during patrols did not exceed two or three individuals. "
Antoine continues: " Il there is also a another type of poaching, more opportunistic. For example, a turtle stuck on the reef, waiting for the tide to rise may be captured by fishermen who passed by, and who saw something to improve their ordinary. "
« Poaching of younger, not yet old turtles has also been observed more rarely to lay, pECHed in the seagrass où they feed. "
The turtle meat trade in Mayotte responds to a request for food, unfortunately, very present. Killing a turtle is not seen as a ''act ofélictious, même if people are aware that this is an illegal act, even less as a destruction of biodiversityé'', précries Antoine.
Morning emergence on Papani beach
''Si part of the turtles are youéare and consumées directly, there is traffic, à theélocal scale. Poachers sell meat à resellers, who take orders while making a comfortable margin. A single turtle weighing a hundred kilos can bring in a lot'', Antoine reports.
Consumers would come from all social strata of the population, and whatever their origin, on the contrary. But the people who have been arrested for acts of poaching on sea turtles are mostly people on the margins of society, affected by poverty, drugs, alcoholism or delinquency.
Papani Beach is dotted with fragments of turtle shells.
According to the member of the association Oulanga na Nyamba: ''répressure is not strong enough to stem poaching on our îthe. In théorie, any act of poaching on a protected animalégé would be liable to one year's imprisonment and a fine of 15 euros. In fact, we see that poachers get by with one night on guard à view, a fine that they will not pay, and are not worriedétéjust what'Aprilès multiple récidives.''
''On the other hand, the means implemented to protect these animals are insufficient. The staff of competent environmental organizations (Nature Brigade, Mayotte Marine Natural Park), despite their efforts are little compared to the size of the lagoon. The police, also competent to enforce the environmental code, unfortunately have other priorities in the territory.
There is now only one nesting beach guarded by the General Council.eral from Mayotte, Moya in small land and the guard team lack the means, they no longer have electricity in their room for example, and this since the solar panel battery has failed… for several months.
Turtle head lying on the beach.
By dint of "surprise" presence on this beach at night, we realizeçis that a large portion of the guards do not do the work for which they areçowe the taxpayer's money, fearing for their securityin'being unarmed, or just lacking motivation or coaching. In all cases, the result speaks for itself: The only guarded beach of the îis regularly poachede.
The Oulanga na nyamba association of which I am a member was born about twenty years ago, and initially concentrating its efforts on being present on “at risk” beaches to deter poachers. Today it appears to us nnecessary, while retaining deterrence of poachers, to focus work on raising awareness among genfuture operations so that the turtles are seen by the Mahorais as a real treasure, a specialcificité de l'îwhich brings much more to living Mayotte, swimming quietly in the lagoon, than dead and consumed on the grill. This is how the ONN association carries out interventions in as many schools and colleges as possible, andstrives to frame ecotourism so that it can develop without becoming a nuisance.
Poaching of sea turtles is unfortunately not anecdotal in Mayotte. This practice is common and continues throughout the year, peaking during the laying season. The result is a well-organized network. This traffic is all the more difficult to denounce because it is extremely taboo. Very few people dare to talk about it openly.
But then, why does this practice exist? Who are these poachers and for what purpose are these massacres taking place? Is it for profit reasons? Maybe for food reasons when you know the extent of poverty in Mayotte?
Several different sources claim that there are many sponsors of turtle meat and that it sells for between 35 and 40 euros per kilo. Poachers are not necessarily consumers and their loot is mainly intended to feed the network.
A female green turtle weighs between 100 and 110 kilos, which represents 35 to 45 kilos of meat. Depending on its weight, a turtle can therefore be worth between € 900 and € 1800.
Money motivates the real slaughter of Mahoran beaches. In addition, you should know that almost all of the poached turtles are females of laying age. The disappearance of these breeding individuals creates a strong imbalance in the male and female proportions, in addition to the decrease in their overall number. The survival of species in Mayotte is therefore largely called into question.
Poaching could be greatly reduced or even banished from Mahoran beaches if the public authorities implemented the necessary human resources.
State bodies, such as the turtle observatory, had set up guards on Sazilé beach (a beach in the south of the island that is difficult to access where poaching is common). But not being armed, they abandoned the place after several attacks by poachers. On the beaches of Petite Terre (Moya 1 and 2), the only ones on the island that are supposed to be watched by guards, the presence of state forces is extremely rare to say the least.
The gendarmerie forces being largely occupied with the maintenance of order and the control of illegal immigrants, the lagoon is practically left to itself. And it is not the six guards of the nature brigades, too few in number for the length of the laying beach and the area of the lagoon, that will change the situation.
Anti-poaching actions are also carried out by local associations such as Oulanga Na Nyamba and most recently Sea Sheperd. The purpose of these actions is to patrol in large numbers on the beaches in order to deter poachers. These actions have a great deterrent power but they are unfortunately only local and punctual. It would require a daily presence (day and night) on the nesting beaches to curb the phenomenon. A permanent presence of sworn guards would be one of the solutions to limit and eradicate poaching. Local political leaders must also take into account the importance of the phenomenon in order to put in place adequate human and logistical resources. But other actions are already being carried out by the various actors who work for the protection of turtles. These actions must also be reinforced. Education and awareness raising for children and the population are, for example, a long-term solution.
The marine park, DEAL, associations such as Oulanga Na Nyamba, all have awareness programs in schools on the island. The Mayotte Marine Park has seconded a full-time person whose goal is to make an awareness day in all the schools on the island. It is also one of the main activities of the Oulanga Na Nyamba association. It is undeniably a necessity to make young Mahorais aware of the importance of preserving this natural wealth, the biodiversity of their lagoon.
Poster campaigns and press releases are carried out by the marine park to raise public awareness of this practice.
The different public and private actors working for the protection of sea turtles
The Marine Park
The Mayotte Marine Natural Park was created by decree on January 18, 2010. It is the first marine natural park created overseas: ( http://www.aires-marines.fr/L-Agence/Organisation/Parcs-naturels-marins/mayotte )
Located in the Mozambique Channel, one of the high places of global biodiversity, the Mayotte Marine Natural Park covers the entire exclusive economic zone (68 km²). On an island where sea resources constitute the main source of protein and fishing, the second sector of activity, reconciling protection of the marine environment and sustainable development of activities is one of the challenges to be met by the Park.
The marine park has created a NAP on sea turtles. You can consult them on this link: http://www.aires-marines.fr/Proteger/Proteger-les-habitats-et-les-especes/Les-tortues-marines
Oulanga Na Nyamba Association
The Oulanga Na Nyamba association ( https://oulangananyamba.com ) was created in 1998 by sea turtle enthusiasts, in order to raise awareness among the population of Mayotte about the protection of sea turtles as well as alerting them to the significant poaching of this protected species on the beaches of Mayotte.
It is actively involved in protecting the environment (“Oulanga”) and marine turtles (“Nyamba”) on the island of Mayotte, as its name suggests in shimaoré. The association has between 100 and 150 members per year.
It should be 2000 members to be force of proposals at the legislative level. The lobbying that we can do is coalition with other associations that have more members, to get to this critical mass. Longitude is today cut off from this possibility. On the other hand, we have in our active members legal advisers who are in the field of the environment, to which I asked a work on this level, to see in the law on the biodiversity (which was voted by the preceding ones governments) what support and what legal means gave us this law to go on these themes there. It is a work in progress with the volunteer lawyers of the association.
Naturalist Association of Mayotte
Created in 1999 by a group of expatriates wishing to make the island and its riches known, the Association des Naturalistes ( https://www.naturalistesmayotte.fr ), environment and heritage of Mayotte is entirely turned towards the discovery, the protection, the popularization of the customs, the heritage and the environment of Mahorais, for more than fifteen years.
THEassociation brings together in 2016, more than 1500 members of all origins. It is involved in a number of environmental and cultural issues on the island.
Their missions are to make knownbe, protect and enhance the island's natural and cultural heritage, through information, awareness, preservation and discovery actions, are all missions carried out by the Naturalists team.
Success stories: Itsamia, à MohElijah.
Trace of a turtle going up laying eggs on Itsamia beach.
There are success stories of preserving sea turtles. This example is located right next to Mayotte, in the Comoros archipelago. It is the small fishing village of Itsamia on the island of Mohéli. With its five beaches, this small village hosts the laying of half the population of female green turtles on the island. Or, approximately 2500 individuals per year, which makes it one of the largest spawning grounds in the Indian Ocean.
The inhabitants of this small village became aware long ago of the important natural wealth represented by sea turtles and their nesting grounds. The latter created ADSEI (Association for the socio-economic development of Itsamia: http://adseimoheli.org/actus/tags/Moheli) in 1991. The organization is actively engaged in the protection and socio-economic development of the village. He set up surveillance of the laying beaches by eco-guards and a good number of volunteer villagers to fight against poaching. It is a success. These same people are in charge of welcoming tourists and raising their awareness of the cause of turtles.
If the small village of Itsamia knew how to realize the importance of its heritage, if despite the economic situation of the country, The Comoros was able to create a dynamic, a collective grouping together an entire village, then this model can be transposed to Mayotte. In addition, this wealth is not limited to an island. The sea turtles that are poached are overwhelmingly female green turtles from the four corners of the ocean. This wealth is a good common to the whole area of the Indian Ocean.
Mayotte, must imperatively be aware of the importance of preserving and protecting the richness of its lagoon, its fauna and flora.
The responsibility for preservation belongs to everyone. Villagers, associations, state services, local authorities, unique biodiversity reaches out to them. Human but also financial means must be established to preserve and protect sea turtles. Eco-guards must be trained and present on all the beaches of the island where the turtles come to lay their eggs. All year round. It is one of the essential measures for the protection of turtles.
Awareness-raising and educational work must be continued and deepened in order to raise public awareness. It must also go through the education of children, so that future generations do not make the same mistakes. The biodiversity of Mayotte is exceptional. Preserving it also means enhancing it. It is advisable to develop a tourism which is in adequacy with the natural environment. This will be a major axis of development that would bring enormous benefits to this island and its biodiversity. If Mayotte establishes a policy of developing responsible eco-tourism, a living turtle will bring much more wealth to all Mahorais throughout its life, unlike the € 35 per kg of meat sold illegally to a few renegades.
Text: Gaby Barathieu
Photos: Gaby Barathieu