Turtle conservation in The Gambia: Interview with Turtles SOS The Gambia's partner coordinator

Turtle conservation in The Gambia: Interview with Turtles SOS The Gambia's partner coordinator

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Turtles SOS Gambia is an organization that was recently launched in the country. Their mission is to protect sea turtles and their habitats through research, training, advocacy and education. Read below our interview with the organisation’s partner coordinator, Marina Novelli.

What’s On-Gambia: Tell us about your organisation and how it was created?

Marina:Turtle SOS The Gambia is a multi-stakeholders initiative emerging from the collaboration between Sandele Eco-retreat and Learning Centre and a number of local and international organisations.

Over the last five years the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has patrolled the beach and collected valuable statistics, but has been unable to implement much needed conservation action to protect the nests or the hatching turtles.

In the summer of 2014, WWF, Sandele Eco-Retreat and Learning Centre joined forces and piloted a re-nesting and hatchery project, which was supported by a small grant  from the British Embassy.  A hatchery was built on the beach at Sandele and a group of volunteers and one member of staff from Sandele monitored activity on a 27 kilometre stretch of beach.   Many lessons were learned from this first experience, including the need to “make haste slowly”, to leave nests as undisturbed as possible, to scale down our ambitions and to seek advice and training so that our next efforts would be better focused.

In December 2014, as part of the 8th edition of the University of Brighton’s Peer2Peer (P2P) Capacity Building in Niche Tourism initiative, a group of international students and local participants worked collaboratively on the development of a business plan aimed at developing the eco-tourism component of what is now called Turtles SOS The Gambia. The P2P initiative is known in The Gambia for the impact of its activities, which have influenced the lives of over 100 Gambians, by providing the opportunity to receive skills training in tourism and hospitality business. P2P is led by me, a Reader in Tourism and International Development at the University of Brighton. Over the past 10 years, I have provided leadership on a number of other initiatives including the restructuring of The Gambia Hotel School and the COAST project in southern Gambia.  My students visit The Gambia twice a year to engage in the P2P initiative and in the Football4Peace initiative.

In 2015, two Eco-village Design Education (EDE) courses and a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) were held at Sandele Eco-retreat and Learning Centre. Both courses stressed the ecological and economic benefits of conservation of all species, and particularly turtles with community members from several villages along the 27km coastline becoming interested in what is today Turtle SOS The Gambia.

Turtle SOS The Gambia is currently in its piloting phase. It has received financial support from the British Embassy Small Grant Fund in 2014, small travel philanthropy contribution gathered through University of Brighton students’ fundraisers and the University of Brighton’s ECHO grant. Turtle SOS The Gambia would not exist today if it wasn’t for the numerous national and international volunteers, who have given free of their time, dedication and passion to the project. Turtle SOS The Gambia is also thankful to Gambia Experience, which has donated two return tickets to volunteers travelling to share their own expertise in the field.

How many local volunteers do you have and from which part of the country are they from?

At the moment there are 35 volunteers, of which 32 are Gambians - from Kartong, Sambouya, Kachumeh, Gunjur and Madina, 1 is from Sierra Leone, 1 is placement student from the University of Brighton who is originally from Guinea Bissau and 1 is a graduate from the University of Brighton who is originally from Lithuania and, having participated in the P2P 2014 edition and turtle project, decided to return and work in the implementation of Turtle SOS The Gambia.  I am also collaborating with the proprietors of Sandele Learning Eco-retreat and Learning Centre, Geri Mitchell and Maurice Philips, in providing guidelines to the volunteers.

What kind of work does Turtle SOS The Gambia do in the country?

Turtle SOS The Gambia is about turtle conservation, community sensitization to conservation and implementation of community-based eco-tourism principles. The project is rooted in the broader desire to protect the environment and ultimately the sea turtles.

Current activities include night beach patrols, which will be held over the turtle nesting and hatchling season (June-November) to ensure that nesting turtles are safe from human predation and other hazards. Scientific data on turtles’ activities are being collected to provide essential information, which will inform strategic future decision.

Turtle SOS The Gambia’s team is involved in a number of communities’ sensitisation such as stakeholders meeting (i.e. Alkalos, fishermen, youth and women groups), school visits and other events (i.e. informative movie nights, turtle parade, turtle kite festival and sensitisation). A fundraiser Turtle SOS The Gambia Party in planned for the 5th  December in Kartong (please see Turtle SOS The Gambia Facebook Page for info). The aspiration is to develop this initiative into a unique self-sustaining eco-tourism experience for those visiting The Gambia, but most importantly a community-based operation, which will benefit the community at large.

A Turtle SOS The Gambia Interpretation Centre is in the making in Kartong on the premises of Sandele Eco-Retreat and Learning Centre, which have offered a space to host this. As part of its commitment to external engagement and sustainable development, the University of Brighton have provided funds (i.e. ECHO Grant and Alumni fundraising) and skills linked to the P2P initiative to train community members and create a hub for education on turtles’ conservation, where locals and visitors can learn about the sea turtles. Turtle SOS The Gambia is extremely thankful to the input provided to date by two experts who have been working on Turtle SOS Cape Verde – Helen Cleasby and Jaquie Cozens, and hope they will continue with sharing their knowledge in the future. 

Was there not any turtle conservation initiative before your arrival?

As previously mentioned, over the last five years the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has patrolled the beach and collected valuable statistics, but has been unable to implement much needed conservation action to protect the nests or the hatching turtles. Turtle SOS The Gambia is pretty unique in its approach and community engagement practices.

Are the Gambia Tourism Board and other stakeholders in the industry aware of your presence?

Turtle SOS The Gambia’s conservation programme is indeed known to and supported by the Gambia Tourism Board and the Ministry of Forestry and Environment and the next step will be to assess best way to collaborate and escalate this pilot initiative from being currently located in southern Gambia to a nationwide one. As with many of these type of projects, it will be essential for Turtle SOS The Gambia to become part of the conservation and tourism development strategy and collaborative engagements of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and the Ministry of Forestry and Environment, if it is to become a long term successful venture.

In which coastal village is the project based?

It is based in Kartong Village, but work is also done is Sambouya, Kachumeh and Gunjur.

Why is turtle conservation important for The Gambia?

The project can be useful for both Gambian marine life and communities’ development. Sea turtles are important to keep the marine eco-system under control and sadly, if not secured, they are under the danger to be extinct.

Turtle conservation is also counted as a great and popular niche for conservation tourism in the world. As The Gambia is mostly famous for the sea, sun and sand tourism, turtle conservation may attract variety of other kind of tourists – researchers, volunteers, students, conservation enthusiasts, families and returners who wish to expand their Gambian experience. The season would also be expanded to all-year round as turtles are active from June till December, which is what is known as the green season. This will ultimately provide local people with an employment in both conservation and tourism activities.

Turtles’ eco-tourism in eco-tourism is a multi-million business in places like Costa Rica, there is space for The Gambia to enter that market, but this can only be achieved through proactive planning, conservation and responsible practices on the parts of the tourists and community members.

If after reading this, your immediate reaction is I want to get involved, please get in touch with Turtle SOS The Gambia via Facebook…and most importantly if you see a turtle on the beach, observe from a distance, do not interfere, she is only looking for a place to nest…and give us all the chance to see more turtles populating the Ocean.

Photos courtesy of Turtles SOS The Gambia (Facebook)

 

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