Turtle Conservation in Solomon Islands

From The Nature Conservancy.

Neither British colonists nor Christian missionaries nor government entities could tamp down conflicts among tribes in this remote South Pacific island nation. But when turtles started disappearing, the local people finally started talking.

The Solomon Islands, a remote Pacific archipelago strung southeast of Papua New Guinea, are probably best known as the site of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal. But they also contain some of the world’s most important nesting grounds for hawksbills. On these beaches, the turtles haul their 150-pound bodies out of the surf and bury hundreds of thousands of eggs in the crushed-coral sand. For the hatchlings that survive, this becomes their hard-wired home, the place to which they’ll return to lay their own eggs.

The Arnavons Community Marine Conservation Area—encompassing 40,000 acres, three small uninhabited islands, flourishing reefs, fish-filled lagoons and beaches that are home to thousands of egg-bearing turtles—is run by an improbable cast of characters. A band of reformed arsonists, poachers and unreformed turtle eaters has teamed up with the Solomon Islands government and The Nature Conservancy to reimagine conservation around their own worldview. At the heart of the project are three communities on Choi-seul, Santa Isabel and Waghena islands—a mix of tribes and cultures who argued over the use of the neighboring Arnavon Islands until agreeing on no use.

This is the first community-run marine protected area in the South Pacific. Now going on 12 years, the project is showing that well-managed protected areas promote healthy communities of turtles and other marine life and also improve the lives of human communities. And a recent anonymous gift to the Conservancy has completed an endowment that will provide sustainable financing for the project—a first for a marine protected area. Says Zama, “It’s up to the three of us [communities] now.”

To fully appreciate the significance of this peaceful arrangement, it helps to understand the violent history that serves as its backdrop.


“Nowadays we only eat turtles for feasts,” Bako says. “It is our kastom.” Such customary feasts are long-standing traditions in Pacific island nations. A turtle on the table for an important birth, death or religious holiday in the Solomons is the equivalent of a Thanksgiving turkey. And in a country where 85 percent of the population depends entirely on natural resources, turtles—even endangered ones—remain an important part of the subsistence diet.

The British colonial government in 1963 resettled the people of the Gilbert (now Kiribati) Islands to the Solomons. The Gilbertese built a village on Waghena, which put the newcomers closer to the Arnavons—and the islands’ abundant marine resources—than either indigenous community on Choiseul or Isabel. Inter-island resentment intensified, and the communities again were in conflict—this time arguing over claims to the Arnavons. The Gilbertese were being blamed for the depletion of resources.

“Some people, when they harvest, they don’t have a controlled harvest,” says Bako. “It’s like a sport: Who will be the champion?”

Edward mayer and Susan Brown are like marriage counselors for conservation. They help partners hash out differences, build trust and collaboration, and cultivate common interests. In 1993, when the Conservancy first entered the picture in the Arnavons, its goal was to get stakeholders talking.

And it took lots of talking before the landowners on Choiseul and Isabel were willing to welcome Waghena residents as a full project partner. Yet it was “the Gilbertese who had the most to lose from the formation of the conservation area,” says the Conservancy’s Thomas. “It is to their credit that they came to the party.” Once they did, the group set up a management committee for the Arnavons Community Marine Conservation Area. The committee was made up of two representatives from each community, three government representatives and Mayer, who tried not to say much. “A lot of the dynamic,” he says, “had to do with how open we were to listening.” Mayer emphasizes the value of consensus among the communities.

As for the three communities on Choiseul, Isabel and Waghena, disputes over the Arnavons may never be fully resolved. But leaders of all three communities seem willing to look beyond those differences for the good of the whole.

Most Marine protected areas (MPAs) are designed to contain zones with different uses that preserve and enhance recreational, commercial, scientific, cultural and conservation goals. Often, their main purpose is to reduce or eliminate harmful extractive activities, such as overfishing.

Scientific evidence shows that MPAs can help preserve and increase the overall diversity and abundance of marine species. By creating networks of MPAs, the Conservancy aims to ensure that ocean and coastal habitats have a better chance of surviving catastrophic events, such as warming waters that bleach corals.

Photographer Jeff Yonover shot these jaw-dropping underwater images (slideshow) in many of the places The Nature Conservancy works — Kimbe Bay and New Britain Island of Papua New Guinea as well as the Solomon Islands. (Natural Light Photos)


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