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Publication Date : 20-03-2013
Ricardo Tapiatu's affection for a certain hard-backed creature is of the all-consuming variety and one that goes back more than two decades
Native Papuan Ricardo Tapiatu is happy spending his nights watching turtles lay eggs on the beach, measuring the size of these creatures or checking their nests. He has been doing this for almost twenty years and still loves it just as much as he did when he first started.
“I’ve slept on the beach after working with the turtles all night. I’ve woken up in the morning with the sun shining and the birds singing. It’s wonderfu," Tapiatu, a researcher and a Fulbright grantee, told The Jakarta Post recently.
Tapiatu's experience with turtles goes back a long way. When he was in high school in 1980, he would see many boats come from Jamursba Medi beach to sell sea turtle eggs and meat at the Sorong Market in Papua.
Jamursba Medi is located on the Bird’s Head peninsula, West Papua. It’s a place where sea turtles, especially leatherbacks, lay their eggs.
The boats contained hundreds of thousands of turtle eggs and smoked turtle meat. Turtle dishes are popular with many in Papua, but not for Tapiatu's family.
“My mother shopped at the Sorong Market but she never bought turtle eggs or meat,” said Tapiatu, who was born in Sorong.
As a teenager, Tapiatu was curious about what was happening to these poor creatures. He started to ask fishermen about various kinds of turtles and dreamt of one day going to Jamursba Medi to meet the turtles personally.
In 1994, now a student in the agriculture faculty of Cendrawasih University, Jayapura, Tapiatu started his research on turtles in Manokwari. The research served to increase his interest, but money was a problem.
“I didn’t have enough funds to continue my research. For the next five years I had to stop what I was doing,” the 47-year-old said.
But his passion persisted, and luck soon found its way to him. In 1999, Tapiatu studied in Australia, and by 2004, was able to secure some funds that then allowed him to visit Jamursba Medi.
It was a long trip from Sorong. Boats must struggle with high currents during the journey, which sometimes strands them on the beach where the turtles lay their eggs.
Besides high currents, Tapiatu also found himself faced with the threat of other wildlife on the beach. The forest is still intact here and boasts a wide variety of insects, birds, fishes, snakes and even crocodiles. But he was triumphant at finally having arrived on the beach he had heard so much about.
According to the father of three, there were more than 10 thousand turtle nests along Jamursba Medi beach in 1980. The area was so popular that some female turtles actually dug into another's nest.
Today, however, it is a more uncommon sight. It has become difficult to find female sea turtles laying their eggs in the mornings or afternoons.
“The number of turtle nests has plummeted drastically,” Tapiatu said, adding that the number was in line with the number of female turtles that had managed to reach the beach.
He explained that during the spawning season, every female turtle would return to the beach five to 10 times to lay their eggs. They produce 70 to 100 eggs every time they reach the beach. But owing to a combination of factors, including human encroachment, other wildlife and climate change, that number is quickly going down.
“We have to do something. If concrete efforts are not taken immediately we will lose this creature,” Tapiatu said, adding that the female turtle population had already declined by 6 per cent and that in the next 20 years, there would be only 100 female sea turtles in Jamursba Medi.
One way of protecting the turtle, he believes, is to educate people. The awareness of those living on coast is very low, with many often stealing the eggs to sell or consume.
“We are trying to work together with the villagers in Jamursba Medi, to teach them how to count the nests and monitor. We also work with neighbourhood students and bring them to witness how we work, including when we do night patrols,” Tapiatu went on.
He said that sea turtles played an important ecological role in the sea and on the beach where they laid eggs. The departure of female turtles to lay their eggs on the beach will guarantee the calcium reserve in the area, as their eggshells contain calcium.
He said the leatherbacks are the top predators of jelly-fish.
“Just imagine if there are no leatherbacks. The jelly-fish will spread to this tourist beach and the sea will be covered with them.”
Looking at the bad condition and important role of the sea turtle, Tapiatu has a simple dream to improve their lives, particularly leatherbacks, in Indonesia.
“We can’t bring back the times when leatherbacks and other turtles had thousands of nests in Jamursba Medi like in 1980, but we can have some serious integrated efforts like beach management and education,” said Tapiatu, who is now pursuing his doctorate degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in the US.
He is optimistic about meeting his goals because the turtle habitat in the Atlantic and the Caribbean has been improved after massive conservation efforts for the last 20 years.
“It's encouraging to know that it's not too late; we can still save the leatherbacks if we try,” he said.