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Nguna and Pele islands lie in a special geographic location within the Republic of Vanuatu; close enough to the capital city of Port Vila to benefit from the massive surge in tourism to the country, yet far enough away to retain strong village-identity and culture. They have been fertile ground for some of the nation’s most exciting innovations, as these communities walk the tightrope of embracing development and maintaining cultural identity. The Nguna-Pele Marine Protected area organization began in 2002 as a joint initiative among village chiefs on Nguna and Pele to strengthen local conservation and development projects.
Sea turtles are undoubtedly Vanuatu’s most iconic species, yet also its most threatened. Throughout Oceania, where sea turtles have traditionally been hunted for millennia, sea turtles are now at precipitously low levels, with many biologists predicting their eminent extinction unless sea turtle harvest is reduced dramatically. Many local and international groups now promote sea turtle conservation in Vanuatu, spreading awareness and pleading with communities to reduce turtle harvest. One local NGO passes out turtle tagging equipment to many communities in the hopes they will tag nesting turtles for science. Sea turtle harvest, however, is not simply hunting for food. The act of catching sea turtles and the close association between islanders and sea turtles transcends the consumption of turtle meat. Pure conservationists have missed this very important connection, which led to low local participation in tagging activities.
Our Turtle-Tagging-for-Tradition-and-Tourists initiative began in 2002 when a visitor caught site of local men hauling a large sea turtle up the beach. They had caught the turtle on the reef and were holding onto it before the tagging gear arrived. No one in the village had thought that the visitor might like to see the turtle before it was tagged. The visitor rushed over and asked many questions, which the islanders proudly answered in broken English. She had never before seen a sea turtle, this iconic and gentle animal, let alone touch and hold it. When the tagging gear arrived, she was asked to hold the turtle’s flipper while it was tagged, and upon release, was the last person to caress it as it swam away into the blue. She was moved to tears by her experience, and before leaving the island gave each of the turtle fisherman $50 in thanks.
The Nguna-Pele MPA, through this turtle tagging initiative, provides an innovative way for turtle fisherman to maintain their identity and even pass it onto their children. Many more islanders are interested in learning this traditional practice because of its cultural and now economic benefits. The annual number of turtles tagged has more than quadrupled. Rather than being consumed, turtles are now tagged, released and sponsored by tourists. Visitors to Nguna and Pele islands have an opportunity to interact with a live endangered sea turtle, with the more adventurous even taking part in the hunt. Overall, cultural identity has been strengthened, eco-tourism is flourishing while sea turtles are being protected.
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Charley Manua is one of the original sea turtle hunters and taggers on Nguna and Pele. He is also the longest serving staff member of the Nguna-Pele MPA. He was integral in establishing the area’s first marine reserves, and has been invited to represent Vanuatu at sea turtle conferences throughout the Pacific. Christopher Bartlett began working with the people of Nguna and Pele in 2002 as a US Peace Corps volunteer. He is in the final months of his PhD at James Cook University in Australia, where his dissertation examines the contemporary marine management practices of Melanesian communities.
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Vanuatu Tagging Turtles for Tradition and Tourism at the Nguna-Pele Marine Protected Area gives eco-tourists the opportunity to tag and release wild-caught sea turtles. At the same time it encourages traditional hunters to continue practicing their age-old custom, but for conservation rather than consumption. Visitors interact with village expert turtle hunters and learn about their way of life and local knowledge on sea turtle biology. Turtle Sponsors are presented with a certificate recognizing their financial contribution and detailing the biological particulars of their individual turtle. The name of the sponsor and the turtle are placed on the Nguna-Pele MPA’s website, and the information is passed to an international conservation database. Turtle fishermen and their villages receive sponsorship money, which acts as a direct incentive for hunters to tag rather than consume sea turtles. The annual number of sea turtles tagged has quadrupled since the introduction of this initiative, with sea turtle sponsorships considerably elevating village income and development. The initiative has maintained the cultural identity surrounding turtle hunting and strengthened the desire among younger generations to learn these customary practices, with an innovative twist.