As nature emerges in human absence, due to the Covid19 pandemic, another narrative has emerged. This time about turtles. Reports of the “thriving” during the lockdown, and bumper hatchings on empty beaches as humans stay indoors is not unknown. The matter of concern, however, is the fact that the pandemic is also bringing new threats for some turtles, and challenging times for organizations dedicated to conserving them.
There has undoubtedly been good news. For instance, BC Choudhury, executive trustee and senior scientific advisor of the Wildlife Trust of India reported, the arribada (mass nesting) of over 200,000 olive ridley turtles benefited from the local lockdown in Rushikulya, India.
The absence of humans or livestock on the beach to trample the eggs; and without people to scavenge from, there were few stray dogs around to raid turtle nests. When turtle hatchlings emerged in early May there was less light pollution from highway traffic to disorient them, meaning they moved straight into the sea.
“The benefit of no visitors this year may make the management think of visitor control during the next arribada season,” says Choudhury.
With the limited crowds, flocking to the beaches and surrounding waters, turtle threats in Florida which included boat strikes and entanglement in beach furniture have decreased, confirmed Brad Nahill, president and co-founder of SEE Turtles, a US-based non-profit promoting ecotourism.
However, empty beaches can also create problems. In many countries, economic opportunity is a crucial factor in safeguarding turtles. Turtles draw tourists and tourism provides jobs — either directly or indirectly related to turtles. But Covid-19 has decimated the tourism industry.
What is even worse is the observed uptick in illegal turtle hunting and egg collection in some countries as coronavirus makes it harder for people to earn a living, sources report.
The collapse in foreign travel has also affected ecotourism and voluntourism (volunteers paying to work at conservation groups), which are essential to many turtle organizations’ funding models. SEE Turtles’ income from organizing tours is down 75% in previous years.
Roderic Mast, president, and CEO of the Oceanic Society and editor of the annual State of the World’s Sea Turtles (SWOT) report says people can help by reporting incidents of turtles nesting or suspicious activity, like poaching, to local authorities. “These reports can help protect turtles when scientists may be off the beach due to COVID,” he said.
Further, a recent study suggested turtles may mistake plastic bags for food; climate change-related sea level rise and stronger storms will erode beach habitats, says NASA; bycatch (when turtles are caught unintentionally during fishing for another species) is a huge threat. The Oceanic Society’s Blue Habits Program says anyone can improve sea turtle prospects by reducing their plastic footprint, reducing their carbon footprint and making sustainable seafood choices.
Scientists and environmentalists conclude the issue on the note that – ‘It’s clear turtles need both space from people and their support’.