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SOS (Save our Sea Turtles) Tobago is one of the islands' most vibrant community-based conservation groups. Discover editor Caroline Taylor caught up with its president Tanya Clovis, and Giancarlo Lalsingh, one of its volunteers, to learn more about the impact SOS is having on Tobago's fragile sea turtle population.
SOS president Tanya Clovis grew up in Tobago and returned home after studying at university abroad. According to her, she was in the right place at the right time and became one of the founding members of SOS in 2000. She's been there ever since, serving on the SOS board. She is also a yoga teacher and massage therapist. Giancarlo Lalsingh, meanwhile, has a long history in the local environmental NGO movement, and currently coordinates the SOS research program, maintains the Facebook page; documents the turtles as SOS' resident photographer, among other things.
CT: Tell us a little about how SOS Tobago was started – the people and the inspiration behind it?
TC: SOS is a small, community-based organisation dedicated to the preservation of Tobago's sea turtles, and their marine and coastal habitat. The group came together in 2000, with support from Environment Tobago and the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Network (WIDECAST) to respond directly to the continued slaughter of giant leatherbacks on beaches in the greater Black Rock area. We developed a programme of nesting beach patrols on Courland Bay (Turtle Beach), Grafton Beach and Mt Irvine/Back Bay, which has since evolved into a full fledged monitoring and research program. We are still part of the WIDECAST network and the opportunity to connect with and learn from the other groups in the country and the region has been invaluable. From the beginning we realised that the patrols were just one part of the conservation picture, so we also developed presentations for use in schools and started facilitating school group visits to the beach through our family field trip program. And we provided training to the registered tour guides through the Department of Tourism to improve the quality of information and interaction on turtle-watching tours on the three beaches that we patrolled.
GC: Volunteers come from all walks of life – of varying ages, employment and social backgrounds, from T&T and abroad – including the UK, US, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa and even Sierra Leone. We've had everyone from students, craftspeople, fisherfolk, tourism professionals, retirees and even aeronautical engineers come to help. The common thread among all these people, both local and international, is that they give their time towards conservation of sea turtles in Tobago.
CT: Who are the people behind SOS Tobago?
TC: Today, SOS is run by a small but committed board. We are still very much action oriented, so everyone involved directly participates in some aspect of our activities – whether it's patrols or public awareness. Over the years we have received support from the British and Canadian High Commissions, as well as small grants from Friends of Conservation (UK) and the Travel Foundation. We were part of the creation of Turtle Village Trust, which is an umbrella organisation founded with the three main turtle groups in Trinidad and supported by some of the larger corporate entities. This collaboration has allowed us to finally offer a small stipend to our patrollers. Prior to this, all funding that came in was for education or training, but nothing for the actual work of patrolling the beach, which was and is the backbone of what we do. (In addition to myself and Giancarlo, Jason Ayres, Darren Thompson, Jezrine Bovell, Amanda Sochan and Anson "Scoutie" Alfred round out the core patrol team.) More recently, the Tobago House of Assembly has also given us a small grant which has allowed us to purchase a vehicle – a very exciting development. While our resources are still extremely limited, we are incredibly grateful to everyone who has supported or continues to support our work in any way, from the larger donor agencies to the individuals who simply adopt a turtle or make a donation. As a group with very little overheads, every little bit makes a huge difference on the ground. Our goal this year is to finally secure sufficient funding and support for an actual building of our own in close proximity to Courland Bay (Turtle Beach) that will serve as an office, patrol base and community resource center.
CT: What's an average day like for you at SOS Tobago?
TC: For our main patrollers, it's really not so much an "average day" as it is an "average night", which involves getting on the beach at 8pm and often having to stay out until sunrise. Many of our volunteers have regular jobs that they attend to in the day, generously offering their evenings for six months a year to the patrol effort. Volunteers also assist in the day with beach profiling, school visits and other public awareness activities, and the board members share the responsibility of fundraising, meeting with stakeholders, marketing, project development and so on. There are many challenges involved in not having a full time staff while still trying to maintain a full schedule of activities, so we do our best from year to year to find the right balance. Our commitment to the patrols on our three main nesting beaches is unwavering, and other projects are developed as funding allows.
GC: An average night generally leaving a regular job at 4pm, getting on the beach at 8pm and staying till 4am (and many nights till sunrise) means very little sleep for over half the year and as one volunteer mentioned, "the many kilometers of beach walking will give you bleary eyes and legs of steel." Turtles start nesting once it's dark but usually it's well after 8pm and continuing until sunrise when it's very busy. On average we see two to five turtles a night, and about 10 during the peak of nesting in late May and early June. Hatching takes place two months after the eggs are laid, so the first batch of babies start emerging in May. The hatchling population peaks in August, but you can usually still see a few hatchlings in September and October if some turtles nest later in the season. The best time to see hatchlings is early evening (6pm–9pm) and early morning (3am–6am).
CT: What has been your biggest (or some of your biggest) accomplishments to date?
TC: Our biggest accomplishment has been the reduction of poaching in the greater Black Rock area through the development and maintenance of full time patrols. This goes hand in hand with the increase in community involvement and support over the years. Initially, poaching was much more accepted than it is today. Our work was considered somewhat radical; today, people are much more openly supportive of the conservation effort and more environmentally conscious overall. We are also very proud of our monitoring and research program on the three main nesting beaches. The advent of tagging on those beaches in 2005 marked a real turning point in the group. In the last five years, we have gone from simply tagging nesting females to also improving our monitoring of nest success rates. This year we have also started beach profiling, which allows us to monitor the changing face of the beach – keeping an eye on things like sea level rise, erosion patterns and other possible effects of climate change and coastal development. There has also been some pilot project work done offshore that we are hoping to further develop in the coming years, to expand the focus beyond the leatherback and beyond the main nesting beaches.
CT: What are the biggest challenges to the work you do?
TC: Outside of the ongoing funding issues, there are larger developmental and legislative matters that are also tremendously challenging. The lack of clear policies on beachfront use and development means that we have no legal recourse when a hotel or guesthouse has bright lights shining on the beach, or someone drives down the beach or throws a party or holds a sporting event on the beach in the middle of the nesting season. All of these things interfere with the nesting process and unnecessarily endanger incubating nests. We have signage on the main beaches and try to work constantly with property owners and beach-goers to minimise their impacts, but sadly without a strong policy framework, compliance is entirely voluntary. The existing local sea turtle legislation is also woefully inadequate for our time, as we are one of the few countries in the region that still maintains an open hunting season on these critically endangered animals. While the leatherback deservedly gets alot of attention nationally, the green and hawksbill turtles are perhaps at even greater risk of being lost to us here in our lifetime given the current rate of capture and consumption in the open season.
GL: Generally most people that go turtle-watching take time to learn about turtles before coming on the beach. We have been lucky enough to not have people riding turtles, which has become an increasing problem on non-monitored beaches in Trinidad. Part of SOS' work is not only to patrol/monitor turtles and nesting beaches, but also provide information awareness and education to people who come turtle-watching, or by visiting communities and schools. This is particularly important for us in Tobago as none of our main nesting beaches are given protected/prohibited status like those in Trinidad, and many beaches that are not monitored do have nesting turtles and hatchlings.
CT: What keeps you going, despite all the challenges?
TC: All of us are still very passionate about the turtles themselves, and about living in a place that celebrates and protects a thriving and abundant natural world. As a group, we have grown slowly but steadily over the last decade, and we are driven to see that kind of evolution continue in the years to come. The idea that we are not just saving turtles but also in some way creating possibilities in people's mind... that in some way we are helping to create a future where young people with a passion for the environment will have the opportunity to make a living doing this kind of work right here at home, to make this their actual life's work... that is also tremendously inspiring.
CT: How can people get involved?
TC: Get in touch! If you live in Tobago, we are always looking for volunteers to assist with beach patrols and other activities, like beach profiling. Make a donation – we are still a long way away from having that patrol base near the beach and full time staff, but every contribution, no matter how small, brings us one step closer to realising that dream.
CT: Is there anything else you'd like people to know?
TC: Turtles can be deterred from emerging on to the beach, or scared off the beach before nesting, by light and activity. Be quiet and unobtrusive on beaches during the nesting season. Keep noise and movement to a minimum; you are much more likely to see a turtle. Flashlights are not necessary and flash photography is not allowed on Tobago's nesting beaches, as the light can disorient the nesting turtle or emerging hatchlings. Don’t drive on nesting beaches, as vehicles can crush entire clutches of eggs beneath the sand. In general, it is a good idea to always go turtle-watching with a guide, and once on the beach to give nesting turtles lots of space, especially during the digging and covering process. Please cooperate with the beach patrols when on the beach – remember that they are there for the turtles safety and are also a valuable source of information, give them room to work and they will be happy to chat with you afterwards.