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Illegally caught sea turtles given second chance at life on Kuta Beach

By Jenny H Backstrom
Murdoch University
Originally published in the Jakarta Post/Bali Rebound March 20-April 03, 2004
See also Jenny's field study report on turtles in Bali
See also Jenny's article in Inside Indonesia magazine

Kuta BeachTourists relaxing on Kuta Beach became turtle rescuers on Wednesday when the beach's public address system announced volunteers were needed to help Bali Sea Police release 130 confiscated green turtles back into the sea. Beers were quickly abandoned under shady trees, surfers came paddling back to the shore and, for a moment, even some of the local women working on the beach stopped discussing sarongs, pineapples and hair plaits in order to recruit volunteers from among their customers.

Excitement and joy filled the air as about 100 curious tourists, beach security and locals gathered to photograph and carry the turtles down to the seashore. Their good mood ebbed somewhat when they found out that these turtles had been caught illegally and were destined for the dinner tables.

The Bali Sea Police had confiscated the turtles during a raid on the boat Angling Dharma off the coast of Tanjung Benoa , Wanci, in southeast Sulawesi early in the morning of March 10. The turtles would likely have been sold as satay meat in Tanjung Benoa had the police not raided the boat. Their black market value varied from Rp 100,000 to Rp 500,000 each depending on their size, police said.

Six alleged poachers caught by police were likely to be charged under Article 21 of Law No 5/1990, which prohibits trading in protected wildlife. If found guilty, they could face a maximum of 5 years in jail and a fine of Rp 100 million. The law protects the six species of sea turtles that inhabit Indonesian waters.

Traditionally, most beaches in Bali were sea turtle nesting habitats but due to rapid development, excessive turtle consumption and destructive catching methods, most populations of turtles in Bali are close to extinction. Since the early 1990s, environmental organizations have started turtle conservation programs around the island and environmental awareness ahs increased as a result. Surprisingly, the crowded tourist centre of Kuta Beach is one of the few safe landing beaches left for the turtles in Bali.

Since 2002, the environmental organization ProFauna Indonesia has actively supported Kuta Beach Security (Satgas Pantai Kuta) in protecting the turtle eggs on the beach from tourist crowds and tides. The sea turtle rescue program has also received full support from local leaders, making Kuta Beach a good place to release the confiscated turtles.

Karen Smith, 28, from Sydney was one of many holidaymakers who helped return the turtles to the sea. She was impressed by the efforts in Bali to protect the turtles and their environment. Having a conservation program was a good idea she said. Such programs were not only helping the turtles but encouraging tourism as well. "I think that more money could be made from conserving the turtles rather than trading them." The beach security could charge the tourists money for letting them participate, she said.Her husband, Ryan, 30, agreed. Helping protect the turtles would be a great experience for most tourists, he said.

I Gusti Ngurah Tresna, coordinator of Kuta beach security, was amused by the idea. He was pleased tourists learned about the turtles in Bali and was impressed by their enthusiasm. However, it would not be a good image for the beach if it commercialized the turtle rescue program, he said. "Maybe tourists would think we caught the turtles to make money for ourselves" he said seriously.

Concern was also reflected in Karen's eyes as she looked out over the ocean one last time before returning to her hotel. "I hope the turtles won't be caught again," she said.