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.