Reunion Island: there is hope for marine turtles

turtles

By Aurora Luongo

Cyclones, shark attacks, landslides, or volcanic eruptions: despite its renowned biological and geographical diversity, when we read about Reunion Island it is more for the natural disasters that happen there than for its environmental conservation activities. However, in this French tropical island in the southern Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and Mauritius, there are motivated people who strive to implement projects with positive outcomes on the environment, especially concerning turtle conservation.

On May 5, 2014, employees of Kelonia, an observatory specialized in marine turtle conservation at Reunion Island, released a loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), named Germaine, in the ocean.

Kelonia clinic

Kelonia’s director, Stéphane Ciccione, explained that the turtle was caught accidentally one year ago by a swordfish fisher, “She had swallowed the bait,” Ciccione explained. “The fisherman warned us, so we looked after Germaine, operated on her, removed the hook and then released her once cured.”

Ciccione considers the story of Germaine a success, “It shows that fishermen are increasingly sensitive to the preservation of endangered animal species,” he stated. “Furthermore, schoolchildren have sponsored Germaine and are therefore sensitive to ocean conservation.”

Germaine is now fitted with an Argos transmitter, which will allow scientists to increase their knowledge about this little-know species. The journey of the turtle can be followed in live at http://wwz.ifremer.fr/lareunion_eng/Les-tortues-en-direct.

Located near a beach of Saint-Leu, on the west coast of the island, Kelonia currently hosts 12 terrestrial and 66 marine turtles, “For marine turtles, the number is constantly changing because most of them are taken care of and then released in their natural habitat,” Ciccione explained.

Kelonia grand basin

The observatory rehabilitates and releases between 15 and 30 turtles per year.

Ciccione revealed that the turtles brought to Kelonia have often ingested plastic objects (caps, lighters, toothbrushes or toys). “Other causes of injuries are collisions with ships and propellers, incidental fisheries, strangulation with an old fishing net or with a fishing line,” he added.

The creation of the site, inaugurated in August 2006, is an environmental conservation success story in itself. Previously, the Kelonia observatory and a public aquarium was a turtle breeding farm, where green turtles (Chelonia mydas) were captive-bred and then exploited commercially (turtle-shell craft, gastronomic specialties like turtle soup). The name Kelonia is a Creole version for the scientific name Chelonia.

In addition to its clinic, Kelonia focuses on research programs on marine turtles. These include migratory studies, monitoring populations, regional and international cooperation, reproduction in a closed basins, and rehabilitation of nesting beaches.

turtle 2

Department head of the clinic, Mathieu Barret, has worked for Kelonia since 2010. Passionate about his work, he develops and implements treatments which improve the convalescence or resident turtles, “The health of turtles improved thanks to the commitment of all those involved in turtles’ care and welfare,” Barret said. “In August, a new therapy based on magnetism should be tested on some individuals.” Several beneficial effects are expected, including accelerated lesion healing and reduced recovery duration.

Kelonia also rehabilitates nesting beaches, “The island was an abundant spawning site before the arrival of humans, laying are still very few, about three per year, but it is more than in the middle of 20th century, when spawning could only be observed every five of seven years,” Ciccione explained.

The observatory is also a museum and a public aquarium where public can observe turtles in an environment that looks almost like their natural habitat.

Through its exhibit, Kelonia plays a great role in raising awareness of the population to its natural and cultural association with marine turtles. Its aim is to make visitors think about the need and the difficulty of reconciling economic, social, environmental and cultural fields.

All sea turtles are now listed on IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and in the Appendix I of the CITES.

“Overall populations continue to decline, but with notable differences according to geographic areas, sometimes with local population increases,” Ciccione explained.

eating turtle

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Aurora Luongo holds a BSc in Environmental Studies from The Open University and a Diploma of Arts in Journalism from the University of Southern Queensland. She took journalism courses at Harvard Summer School in 2013 and is now studying towards a MSc in Environmental Management with the University of London. Besides her studies, she works as a Communication Officer in an environmental NGO and is a Volunteer Translator (English-French) for a foundation active in Wildlife Conservation.

 

 

 

 

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