The West African island nation of Cape Verde is experiencing first-hand the rewards of years of conservation effort. In the past five years, Cape Verde has seen a surge in sea turtle populations across all 10 of its islands. According to the country’s environment ministry, last year’s nest numbers are at nearly 200,000, a huge leap from the 10,725 nests accounted for in 2015.
These impressive numbers may push Cape Verde from the world’s third-largest nesting site for loggerheads, after Florida and Oman, to either the second or even first place spot.
The increase in nesting numbers is the result of a number of factors, including the Covid-19 travel restrictions and a global decline in shark populations, one of the sea turtles’ predators, however, experts largely attribute the sea turtle boom to conservation measures.
“Conservation efforts in Cape Verde began 20 years ago—that’s the time it takes for baby turtles to come back as adults,” says Albert Taxonera, founder and co-director of Cape Verdean conservation organization Project Biodiversity.
Local patrollers monitor hundreds of miles of coastline every year during nesting season and are responsible for protecting as many sea turtles as they can. They are also tasked with measuring and fitting each turtle with a tracking chip so that researchers can determine how many turtles return safely to sea.
Local communities used to think of sea turtles only as a food source, but educational initiatives have raised awareness of the importance of the creatures for the ocean and their environment.
“Before, I just thought of them as food,” says Semedo, one of the local beach monitors. “But since the first day I saw a turtle, I knew I wanted to protect them.”
Though conservation efforts have been going on for decades, Cape Verde intensified existing laws surrounding the protection of turtles by criminalizing their killing, trade, and consumption in 2018. Perpetrators of these crimes are either fined or sentenced to community service, which sometimes involves beach patrol with the NGO that caught them.
Other beaches in the world from India to the US have observed significant increases in turtle nesting, however, there are still many obstacles that sea turtles have to face to survive. Species, like a number of leatherback subpopulations, have been classified by the IUCN as critically endangered.
Some of these hurdles include fishing nets, which can be fatal to sea turtles, and ocean plastics. Another major threat is coastal development, especially tourist resorts that are constructed near nesting beaches. “We are destroying their habitats and causing global warming, but we are also implementing very strong conservation programs,” says Juan Patiño-Martinez, the scientific coordinator at the Maio Biodiversity Foundation. “So, it depends on the humans. We can cause their extinction, or we can conserve them.”