Michelle Kalamandeen: “It’s commitment that counts”

Michelle Kalamandeen tells Caroline Taylor why she has a special love for Guyana’s Shell Beach

Children turtle-watching. Photograph courtesy Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society/Michelle KalamandeenLeatherback at Shell Beach, Guyana. Photograph courtesy Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society/Michelle Kalamandeen

Shell Beach is amazing—ninety miles of mangrove and lowland swamp forests, seasonal palm savannahs, and nine beaches consisting entirely of seashells, with thousands of plant and animal species.

As an undergraduate at the University of Guyana in 2000, writing an article on Shell Beach for the Nature Society’s newsletter, I fell in love with the area so much that I conducted my thesis at Shell Beach, and after graduating in 2002, was hired by the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society as their technical and environmental education officer. GMTCS was born out of Dr Peter Pritchard’s work on marine turtles in Shell Beach back in the 1960s.

I also assisted in community development projects and helped design the GMTCS Turtle Museum at the Guyana Zoological Park. After completing my master’s at Oxford University in 2005, I was invited to assist in the management of the project. Since then, I have volunteered as the sea turtle co-ordinator.

Each March to August, Shell Beach hosts one of the world’s most spectacular events, when endangered marine turtle species come ashore to lay their eggs. The female comes ashore under the camouflage of night, often to the beach where she was born, and digs an egg chamber that she fills with 100 or more soft-shelled eggs, each about the size of a tennis ball. She then gently covers the eggs with sand, moving over a wide area to obscure the exact location of her egg chamber. A few hours later, she slips back into the vast brown Atlantic Ocean, perhaps returning up to eight times within a season. Her hatchlings are left to fend for themselves and emerge 45-70 days later, making a dash for the water. In a swimming frenzy, the young turtles swim furiously for deeper water where they will be safer from predators. They usually lodge themselves in floating seaweed to hide from other ocean predators. Many of the hatchlings will only return to Shell Beach when they are sexually mature, some 15-40 years later.

Unfortunately, numbers of marine turtles have plummeted over the years. They are hunted by transient settlers and the indigenous Amerindian communities—mainly Arawak, Warrau and Carib Indians—and have also been impacted by habitat loss, commercial fishing and pollution of the oceans. With this in mind, and with funding from the Florida Audubon Society, Dr Pritchard began a pilot programme with two Amerindian former turtle hunters, Audley James and Compton Edmonson. The programme grew, and in April 2000, GMTCS was formally established.

Our work today involves four main areas. The first is our monitoring programme, where we have nightly sea turtle patrols to safeguard nesting females, while also providing tourists and visitors to the area a chance to experience this phenomenon first-hand. What’s more, we actively employ people who would ordinarily have been turtle consumers—turtle hunters or consumers—so that they can experience an alternative to killing the animals, and why it is so important to save them.

The second is our conservation camps for young people. They’re usually held between May and July each year, and accommodate up to 48 youths, eight parents, and eight teachers from local communities in the Shell Beach area. The participants are usually people who depend on fishing and poaching for their livelihood, so we aim to provide them with information that we hope will help them make the transition into being a community that offers the turtles protection and sanctuary while they are at their most vulnerable.

Our third ongoing initiative is one in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, Ministry of Fisheries, and fishermen to reduce the number of turtles that are accidentally caught in the drift seine nets of fishermen, which can extend for up to two miles. Our first sea turtle by-catch study last year showed that over 100 sea turtles were caught and killed in this manner. The result is that, in addition to further jeopardising sea turtle populations, the sale and consumption of turtle meat is now spreading from traditional rural communities to the capital, Georgetown. Naturally, this works against our conservation efforts, if the wider population develops a palate for turtle meat.

Finally, I work closely with communities to ensure that conservation activities are always on their radar, and that turtle meat and eggs are not consumed or sold. Several communities have shown their commitment to sea-turtle conservation by writing it into their local laws. We are also developing our line of Northwest Organics products, such as crabwood oil, which is made from the Waini community and sold in various supermarkets. Several communities are developing eco-tourism based activities, like tours to Shell Beach to view sea turtles. But it is extremely challenging, as alternative projects are difficult to implement and are not always successful, so how do you tell a poor man not to kill a sea turtle to feed his children when there are no other options available to him?

Probably the greatest threat to these turtles, outside of hunting and errant fishermen’s nets, is lack of funding for conservation efforts. There are several conservation projects vying for the same limited pool of funding, so it is only the World Wildlife Fund that has directly funded sea turtle conservation activities for several years. But that only covers monitoring for 20 miles out of a 90-mile stretch of beach!

It’s sometimes overwhelming on an institutional, let alone an individual, level to feel you can make a real impact. But conservation goals are a bit like getting in shape: commitment is everything. The most effective way for people to support conservation and sustainable development in their everyday lives is just to talk about it, with friends, colleagues, children. We can also make careful choices as to what and how much we consume, like minimising the use of non-biodegradable products, and disposing of our waste properly. When plastics find their way into the ocean, turtles often mistake them for food. It’s also important not to buy or eat products from endangered or threatened species. And of course, volunteering for community and environmental organisations is a great way to spread the message and make an impact outside your own personal life.

 

Anyone who would like to get involved can contact the Sea Turtle Project at the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society (GMTCS): Le Meridien Pegasus, Kingston, Guyana; T: (592) 225-4483/4. E-mail: gmtcs@bbgy.com