CARE-WWF Alliance and A Tale of Two Turtles


By Cathy Riley


A small gasp of excitement went up from our team of visitors today as the captain of our boat pointed out a marine turtle swimming nearby, through the shimmering aquamarine surface of the ocean. As we scrambled to get a look, and snap a few pictures, I felt my earlier concerns lift slightly. Watching the turtle speed away under the waves, I could only stand and wonder at the beauty and magnificence of our natural world.

But it wasn’t a long-lived feeling, because straight away I began to worry how long this small turtle, which I suppose is still a juvenile, would survive. I asked myself how big it would actually grow before being snared in a net and taken for food or to make jewelry or other trinkets from its shell. This wouldn’t have been my usual thought process on spotting such a rare sight, but we had just left one of the islands of the Segundas island archipelago, where we had discovered not just one but three turtle shells, two of them very large and one of them extremely fresh, which I could tell from the still-wet underside of the shell, where some bits of flesh were still glistening.

It was so depressing. If you stood downwind you also got a distinct smell of decay. I couldn’t help but compare this with a recent experience I had of stroking the shell of a living leatherback turtle at the V&A waterfront aquarium in Cape Town. It had been so inspiring to be near an animal that is that large, and lives that long. Now here I was, looking at the remains of a meal. One that is technically illegal, I believe, in Mozambican law and yet one that is also considered a delicacy, or maybe even worse a necessity, by the people who catch them.

And yet. And yet! I also think to myself how easy it is to judge. It’s so easy to pass judgment on others who ’should do this’ or ’shouldn’t do that' when I am virtually guaranteed every day to have a full stomach on 3 meals a day and access to clean, fresh drinking water is just a plastic bottle away! Working as I do for CARE International - an organization that concerns itself with issues of social development, ending poverty and tackling social injustice - I find myself torn between feeling a genuine sympathy for people whose nutritional needs and low incomes drive them to consume or to sell the turtles they catch, and feeling such frustration that the very resources we are talking about will be gone forever if these same people don’t genuinely understand why and how it is important to protect and conserve such creatures.

And there’s the rub.

Because changing behaviors is about changing mind-sets, and changing mind-sets is no easy task, nor will it be achieved by imposing an outsider’s perspective. It has to be built on a strong foundation. So, while I think we have some strong beginnings of this, in the community-based natural resource management groups that are being set up by the CARE-WWF Alliance in the Primieras and Segundas programme, I also think we still have a long way to go.

How, for instance, can we better support such community-based groups to monitor and enforce the no-take policies that they have decided to adopt in parts of the estuary where they fish? Creating fish sanctuaries - what a great initiative to see happening locally! But there’s a long way to go, clearly. They face a lot of challenges, both at sea and on the land. And I am hopeful that by engaging with local fishing communities in ways that deliver effective environmental education whilst also empowering them in local decision-making and supporting them to develop alternative, sustainable and productive livelihoods; we can bring about the difference we seek in terms of helping both people and planet, including those beautiful turtles, not just to survive, but to thrive. 

Cathy Riley is CARE's assistant country director in Mozambique.