(Barbados Nation) In the dead of night, a new enemy stalks the endangered hawksbill turtle.
Not a natural predator, this new killer waits until a female, heavy with eggs, clambers up the beach, begins the task of digging her nest and then, knife in hand, butchers her senselessly.
Poachers have begun attacking the critically endangered species with even more frequency this year.
Up to the end of last month, there were ten reported cases of poaching, as compared with five for all of the 2011 nesting season.
At the start of this month, one was bludgeoned to death, but not for her meat or eggs.
It is a trend that has the field director of the Barbados Sea Turtle Project not only incensed, but afraid of what it could mean for the species and the environment.
Darren Browne said three more acts of poaching came to light on a central West Coast beach between last Thursday night and the early hours of Friday.
This follows last week Wednesday night’s taking of two turtles from a Speightstown beach where the evidence was clear that a turtle had lost a hard-fought battle to survive.
Other turtles have been butchered at Bath Beach, St John; Oistins, Christ Church, and Paynes Bay, St James.
In addition, turtle egg poaching is on the increase, with three nests on Paynes Bay Beach being raided in the same night.
“One of the things we heard,” said Browne, “is that because it has been a very bad year in terms of the fishing industry, it’s possible that some of the fishermen are starting to turn to turtles for additional sources of income. We’re not sure how accurate that is, but some of the names we have been given are fishermen.
“One of the reports that we got was that somebody was appalled that somebody was trying to sell him turtle eggs at one egg for $3 and that was why he reported it,” Browne said.
The field director noted the poachers were getting even bolder and more aggressive, to the point where they were threatening eyewitnesses against making reports to police. So afraid was one person that she only reported an incident to the project three days after the act and she could not be convinced to make a statement to police.
Browne lamented that while the Barbados Sea Turtle Project was a conservation organization, it did not have the legislative teeth to pursue prosecution of offenders. In addition, a lack of funding has prevented them from increasing the number of volunteers.
“So all we can do is pass the information on to Fisheries [Division] and on to police,” he said.
Browne noted this year had been really overwhelming, with reports of poaching coming from around the island.
And while the island’s hawksbill turtle population was doing a lot better than in other islands in the Eastern Caribbean, because of legislation banning the killing of turtles and selling the meat or eggs, Browne fears if nothing is done to arrest this growing trend, all the gains made could be erased.
“We’ve only got a maximum of 500 females per year, and each one of those females is one out of 1 000 hatchlings that actually survived, lived to 30 years old and made it back to nest.
“If we have a really severe poaching problem, the turtle population will be wiped out.
“It might not be an immediate effect but over time the turtle population will go into decline,” he stressed, adding that turtles not only ate sponges which choke and kill coral, but they were a major draw for tourists.
Browne has urged people to report any acts of poaching to the Barbados Sea Turtle Project at its hotline – 230 0142 – and the project would then pass the information on to police.