Sea Turtle Adventure in Vanuatu (Our Place)

Sea Turtle Adventure in Vanuatu (Our Place)

Unakap, Vanuatu
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Sea Turtle Tourism in Vanuatu (Our Place) initiative is the very essence of geotourism: tourism that enhances the unique traditional and indigenous character Vanuatu -its underwater diversity, ancient indigenous customs, cultural heritage, the well-being and social development of its residents and the stewardship of the environment. Our initiative conserves one of the world's most powerful places (Vanuatu literally means ‘our place’), and distinctive species. Embodying geotourism, our approach facilitates ideological exchange between cultures and provides a solution to the complex, real-world issue of sea turtle biodiversity loss and the decline in indigenous Pacific-island ...

About You
Contact Information

NPMPA Network

First name


Last name


Your job title


Name of your organization

Nguna-Pele Marine Protected Area Network

Organization type

community organization

Annual budget/currency


Your idea
This will be the address used to plot your entry on the map.
Street Address

Nguna Island





Postal/Zip Code


Geotourism Challenge Addressed by Entrant

Quality of tourist experience and educational benefit to tourists , Quality of benefit to residents for the destination , Quality of stewardship of the destination.

Organization size

Small (1 to 100 employees)

Indicate sector in which you principally work

Community Organization

Year innovation began


Indicate sector in which you principally work

Living culture, Nature, Indigenous people, Adventure, Education, General tourism, General destination stewardship/management.

Place your video embed code here from YouTube, Google Video and other video sharing websites. How to embed a video from YouTube.

<object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value=""></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object>

What is the goal of your innovation? Please describe in one sentence the kind of impact, change, or reform your approach is intended to achieve.

Maintain the power of island culture while protecting an endangered sea turtle species and facilitate a novel tourism experience.

Please write an overview of your project. Include how your approach supports or embodies geotourism or destination stewardship. This text will appear when people scroll over the icon for your entry on the map located on the competition homepage.

The Sea Turtle Tourism in Vanuatu (Our Place) initiative is the very essence of geotourism: tourism that enhances the unique traditional and indigenous character Vanuatu -its underwater diversity, ancient indigenous customs, cultural heritage, the well-being and social development of its residents and the stewardship of the environment. Our initiative conserves one of the world's most powerful places (Vanuatu literally means ‘our place’), and distinctive species. Embodying geotourism, our approach facilitates ideological exchange between cultures and provides a solution to the complex, real-world issue of sea turtle biodiversity loss and the decline in indigenous Pacific-island culture. In this turtle tagging program, both locals and visitors learn and share about turtles, simultaneously achieving the goals of conservationists, local peoples and guests. Our eco-tourism initiative encourages the stewardship of Vanuatu’s unique marine and cultural resources, while presenting a much needed economic opportunity to disadvantaged people. This turtle tagging program brings pride to local residents and to the country as a whole, showcasing to the world how our local knowledge and traditions can be of global conservation value. Working together with travelers and conservationists, our communities have designed a sustainable model that protects and enhances the world’s sea turtle heritage AND ‘our place’.

Explain in detail why your approach is innovative

This initiative is a first globally, and has been a source of motivation for other indigenous communities throughout Vanuatu. The approach is very simple: villagers want to maintain sea turtle hunting culture and identity. Conservationists want to reduce the number of sea turtles killed. Tourism provided us with the mechanism to simultaneously achieve these two seemingly contradictory goals. Eco-tourists staying on Nguna and Pele islands are encouraged to participate in the tagging-sponsorship program, enticed to snorkel alongside an indigenous turtle hunter to catch a wild sea turtle on the reef at night. Indigenous experts describe traditional turtle lore and answer questions about sea turtle biology. The sponsor names the turtle for SPREP’s international tagging database. The wild turtle is released back into the sea to much applause and enjoyment from locals and visitors alike. Many sea turtle sponsorship programs exist in the world, but none like ours that allow a visitor to catch turtles with an indigenous hunter. Proceeds are divided among the hunter and the village conservation committee. The hunter maintains and passes tradition to future generations. Our innovative approach succeeds where previous tagging efforts have not: cultural identity is strengthened, eco-tourism flourishes and turtles are protected.

Describe the degree of success you have had to date. How do you measure, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the impact on sustainability or enhancement of local culture, environment, heritage, or aesthetics? How has it transformed or contributed to the power of place or demonstrated the sustainability of tourism? How does your approach minimize negative impacts?

This initiative has proven to be one of the most important activities the Nguna-Pele MPA has ever carried out. But like any project it has experienced its share of growing pains. Getting processes and agreements in place among 16 communities, and equitably sharing benefits is no easy task, but over the last four years, we have been able to continually improve the initiative to a system accepted by all. Its improvement continues to this day, and will continue to evolve and be strengthened into the future. Quantitatively we have seen the number of turtles tagged each year increase four fold. Individual village conservation committees and the NPMPA have, for the first time, been able to derive a regular and sustainable source of income. The number of sea turtles consumed among all villages on the two islands has declined to under five each year. Qualitatively, the people of Nguna and Pele have great pride in their innovative efforts to both preserve an endangered species and an endangered cultural heritage and way of life. Our initiative can undoubtedly be considered a success in progress for its innovative approach to solve environmental and social concerns though low-impact and sustainable tourism.

In what ways are local residents actively involved in your work, including participation and community input? How has the community responded to or benefited from your approach?

The NPMPA is fully managed by an indigenous executive committee. All activities are designed and implemented by local people. The organization itself began in 2002 as a joint initiative among four village chiefs. As evidence of the overwhelming response and community benefit, the NPMPA now includes 16 member villages, and is leading several conservation and tourism initiatives. The organization is renown in the Pacific. In addition, villages throughout the country have requested assistance from the NPMPA in designing and operating their own village eco-tourism projects. The turtle-tagging initiative is run completely by village people, and belongs exclusively to the community.

How does your program promote traveler enthusiasm, satisfaction, and engagement with the locale?

Very few people from North America, Europe or Asia have had the chance to interact with a live endangered sea turtle, let alone participate in an in-water turtle hunt. Most visitors to Nguna and Pele cite this as the most memorable part of their stay. It gives visitors a chance to contribute to a larger conservation issue. It also engenders a broader view of conservation than is typically presented; that indigenous people have strong cultural connections to resources, and one-sided conservation intervention can have serious consequences on their cultural identity. Through sensitive engagement with locals, visitors are much satisfied.

Describe how your work helps travelers and local residents better understand the value of the area's cultural and natural heritage, and educates them on local environmental issues.

Economic benefit is a major incentive for locals to tag/release rather than kill turtles, while still maintaining the cultural traditions of turtle hunting. Most important however is the exchange of ideas facilitated by exposing overseas travelers to turtle hunters and vice versa. Turtle hunters witness first-hand the value of turtles to people in countries with no coastline, while overseas guests understand the cultural association hunters have with turtles. Visitors learn much from expert hunters. Travelers are encouraged to take a broader view of conservation, and support destinations that promote social and cultural justice in addition to environmental conservation.

How is your initiative currently financed? If available, provide information on your finances and organization that could help others. Please list: Annual budget, annual revenue generated, size of part-time, full-time and volunteer staff.

The NPMPA earns a significant portion of its outreach budget through eco-tourism and the turtle-tagging initiative. During some years, sea turtle revenue has made up the entire operating budget of the organization. As stated in our charter all economic benefit from tourism must flow directly back to communities. The Nguna-Pele MPA network depends heavily on locally available materials and support from volunteer human resources. Educational outreach, ecological monitoring, village cleanups, workshops, turtle tagging, invasive species eradication and much more is accomplished for less than $5,000USD per year. Additional grants for specific projects like renewable energy, mariculture and scientific surveys are sought on a regular basis. The Nguna-Pele network has a single salaried local manager with several part-time volunteer staff to carry out the mandates of the organization, however hundreds of village volunteers do the majority of on-the ground conservation work.

Is your initiative financially and organizationally sustainable? If not, what is required to make it so? Is there a potential demand for your innovation?

Indigenous ownership has led to this initiative’s success over the long-term. All activities are locally-appropriate and equitably distributed among island communities. Sustainability is also due to the Nguna-Pele network’s voluntary nature; member communities and conservation committees work without pay, but are motivated by the community and individual accumulation of benefits of working together. Sea turtle tagging and sponsorship can only be achieved through collaboration, therefore the demand for this partnership is growing among communities and eco-tourists alike. As economic cultural and economic benefits improve, communities become empowered to take more responsibility for local biodiversity.

What are the main barriers you encounter in managing, implementing, or replicating your innovation? What barriers keep your program from having greater impact?

Villages on Nguna and Pele islands speak the same language, have strong familial links, and have pledged their support to working together for conservation and tourism benefit. However, in order for the turtle-tagging approach to be widely applied, the network needs to further improve the process for 1) promoting the destination to eco-tourists 2) providing feedback to tourists about their turtle after their departure and 3) maintaining up-to-date turtle information on the world-wide web. These points are often extremely difficult for island project personnel. Our innovation could be replicated elsewhere by partnering with an external collaborator, outsourcing the overly-technical parts of this initiative. For example, the NPMPA would communicate turtle taggings and recaptures to an external partner who would then put this information on the web, and communicate in English to eco-visitors about their turtle. In this way, economic benefit is obtained by even the most remote communities, while eco-visitors can virtually participate in local conservation. In order for our initiative to have maximal impact, we need to extend our collaborative network across geographical and technical barriers to willing and motivated people who wish to contribute expertise.

What is your plan to expand or further develop your approach? Please indicate where/how you would like to grow or enhance your innovation, or have others do so.

The success of the NPMPA network has started national plans to expand the networking idea to other parts of the archipelago and eventually on a national scale. Several communities on nearby islands, have heard about and since initiated their own sea-turtle tagging projects for tourists. We would like to see turtle tagging opportunities expanded to communities that do not have regular access to visitors, such as the small isolated island not regularly serviced by air or sea transport. This could be done through a virtual tagging portal, where turtle sponsorship requests are made by visitors who do not visit Vanuatu.

The Story
What is the origin of your innovation? Tell the Changemakers and media communities what prompted you to start this initiative.

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. These islands have been fertile ground for some of the nation’s most exciting conservation innovations, as these communities walk the tightrope of embracing development and maintaining cultural identity. The Nguna-Pele Marine Protected A network began in 2002 as a joint initiative among village chiefs on the islands 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. Sea turtle hunting is part of our identity however, and loosing it means loosing our indigenous heritage.

Many local and international groups tried to 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. But with little direct benefit to communities for tagging, there was low participation in those programs.

Our initiative began in 2002 when an overseas visitor saw local men hauling a large sea turtle up the beach. They were going to tag and release it. 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 question after question, 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 network saw the potential in this experience and now offers visitors the chance to actually hunt with the hunters on the reef at night.

The Nguna-Pele MPA network, 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.

Please provide a personal bio. Note this may be used in Changemakers' marketing material.

Ronnet John 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.

Describe some unique tourist experiences that your approach provides. Be specific; give illustrative examples.

It is pitch black, just a tiny circle of light from your underwater torch catching the fire red arm of a gorgonian fan on the coral reef at night. Swimming beside you is an indigenous hunter and fisherman, doing what he has been doing for millennia: catching sea turtles. Tonight though, there will be no traditional dancing, no drums and no feasting. Tonight you are catching sea turtles for conservation, to tag and release a member of this iconic species back to the wild. The hunter makes the circular motion with his torch that you discussed on the beach…he has spotted a sleeping turtle. You hover, floating above him as he dives down, 3 meters, then 5 meters, and then reaches the reef below where you make out the shell and back flippers of a turtle. It has put just its head into a crevice thinking it is well-hidden. The hunter takes hold of the powerful front flippers and in an instant has again reached the surface with the wildly flapping turtle. Your heart races, but you know that this soon-to-be-tagged turtle at least, will be safe from hunting for the rest of its long life.

What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?

In order to spread this innovation to more communities throughout Vanuatu where tourism does not reach, we require partnerships with individuals who can set up a virtual tagging hub. In this way, people can pre-sponsor turtles through the internet, and get photos, species info and certificates back without ever traveling to these remote communities. Similarly, remote communities can economically benefit from tourism which logistically would otherwise never reach them. As tourism tends to stay close to the capital city in Vanuatu, a virtual tagging partnership could spread benefits of this innovation throughout Vanuatu’s 84 islands.