A scientific paper recently published in the journal PLOS ONE shows that the Arnavon Islands hawksbill turtle rookery is showing signs of recovery after almost 150 years of exploitation. Located in the Solomon Islands archipelago, this rookery is one of the west Pacific’s most important nesting and hatching sites for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. Until 1994, the Arnavons were also one of the world’s most prolific exporters of turtle products, with the rookery being one of the last to legally be exploited for tortoiseshell. The study in PLOS ONE was the result of 22 years of data collection between 1991 and 2012, the purpose of which was to monitor the Arnavon turtle population through tagging programs and beach surveys. Once analyzed, this wealth of data showed that a turtle population that had been hunted to the brink of extinction by the early 1990s has doubled over the last two decades. The number of nest sites has almost tripled since the beginning of the study, while the number of individual turtles returning to breed year after year has also increased.
The study, which was conducted by The Nature Conservancy and its partners, represents the only such recovery in the western Pacific region and is thanks in large part to the combined efforts of the Conservancy, the Solomon Islands government, and the local Arnavon communities. This unity did not always exist, however. Turtles have always been significant to the cultural heritage of the Solomon Islands, where their shell was traditionally used to create ceremonial ornaments and their meat was sometimes eaten on special occasions. However, from the 1800s onwards, the harvesting of turtle shell for the creation of tortoiseshell became commercialized, and the people of the Arnavon Islands began to export the product globally. According to Richard Hamilton, the lead author of the PLOS ONE paper, approximately 4,000 turtles were killed in the Solomon Islands every year in the industry’s heyday, many of which came from the Arnavon Islands rookery. In the 1970s, the export of turtle shell was banned in many countries around the world, and yet efforts by the Solomon Islands government to establish a sanctuary for the species in the Arnavon Islands was met with resistance from local communities.
Instead, the rookery continued to be exploited, and by the 1980s the Arnavon rookery had become one of the main suppliers of tortoiseshell to the global market. In 1991, The Nature Conservancy began monitoring and tagging the Arnavon hawksbills in an attempt to prove the fragility of the population and therefore secure its protection. In conjunction with the government, the Conservancy began talks with the local community that sought to include them in plans for the establishment of a Marine Protected Area. This time, the plans were approved, and in 1995, the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area was established in collaboration with the islands’ traditional owners. The creation of this protected area came a year after the Solomon Islands government imposed a national ban on the exportation of turtle products. By employing conservation officers from within the local community, the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area therefore provided the people of the Arnavon Islands with an income to replace the one that they had previously earned through the harvesting of tortoiseshell.
Today, hawksbill turtles are still classified as Critically Endangered throughout their range, and continue to face a number of threats both in the Arnavon Islands and elsewhere. These threats include subsistence fishing, illegal poaching and trade, habitat loss and the long-term effects of climate change and marine pollution. However, the promising recovery experienced by the Arnavon hawksbill population as a direct result of conservation efforts is hugely encouraging. According to Hamilton, it proves that “changes in policy, inclusive community-based management, and long-term commitment can turn the tide for one of the most charismatic and endangered species on our planet.”
Media has become so saturated with evidence of the planet’s critical condition that it can sometimes seem as though there is no hope for our ailing environment. Positive conservation stories like this one, therefore, represent a ray of hope in the darkness, a hope that we can bring the oceans back from the brink to which we have pushed them.