Completing a long-lived circle, one that involves clear turtle soup

2009-07-17 00:00

LOOKING back many years now, to when I was a nine-year old boy, I may well have been adventurous enough to have tried the soup starter that appeared on the menu as Tortue claire aux Xeres, or clear turtle soup.

However, in my admittedly rather weak defence, I simply cannot remember whether I did partake of this portion of the meal. Clear turtle soup was first up on the menu for the Pretoria Castle’s farewell dinner, on April 4, 1957. We were travelling to England for my father’s sabbatical leave.

Some say that life moves in circles and this may just have happened to me. I feel that I have just completed a very long-lived circle, involving sea turtles.

It was on my return from Kenya, unpacking boxes and boxes of possessions, that I came across the menu and passenger list from our trip some 52 years ago. I had probably read the documents before and the “turtle” word had not meant much to me at all, or so it seems.

In Kenya, I was fortunate enough to have spent a year on the coast about 100 kilometres north of bustling Mombasa, in a small fishing and tourism destination village called Watamu. Here I managed a successful and worthy sea turtle conservation project, one of a few along the Kenyan coastline. Maybe I did have the clear turtle soup, and only today, now knowing and understanding the current and future plight of these animals, (with some 80% of the worldwide populations of sea turtles having been decimated over the past 40 or so years) have “earned the right” to serve these endangered animals in some meaningful way.

Watamu is situated just north of Mida Creek. It is a 3 200 hectare expanse of tidal water, up to 11 metres deep, in parts, and fringed by a mangrove forest comprising different species. Many happy and peaceful hours were spent fishing these waters from the shore and from dugouts with flies, lures and baited hooks. I generally had little luck, other than catching small kingfish and garfish.

Mida Creek is heavily fished by local netters and line fishermen for prawns and fish. Today sea turtles which are caught either in nets or by hook, are handed across to Watamu Turtle Watch for a small compensatory fee, whereas in the past they were slaughtered and eaten. In the past the nesting sea turtles on the Watamu beach were also slaughtered immediately after nesting and the eggs dug out and eaten.

These days the sea turtle nests are protected and the nests and hatchlings monitored and the hatchlings allowed to enter the sea unmolested, when they are ready.

A large part of the project’s work is in education and community development. We reached some 10 600 pupils in 21 local schools (we also worked in nine pre-primary) and many stakeholder groups (not only fishermen), assisting them with institutional development skills and alternate income generating projects and schemes.

The project’s conservation outreach programme, despite the poor condition of the roads, called for travel up and down the coast training informal turtle conservation groups (TCG) how to protect, monitor and report on sea turtles. The project remains one of the lead members of the Kenyan Sea Turtle Conservation Committee (Kescom), which incorporates all TCGs and the authorities such as the Kenyan Wildlife Society (KWS).

The project also manages the only sea turtle rescue centre in East Africa, saving many turtles that have ingested plastic, have been speared, partially drowned or require some veterinarian attention for fibropapillomas (cancerous growths) on their soft tissue.

In our South African oceanic waters, we have breeding loggerhead and leatherback turtles, the females of which beach to make nests and lay their eggs. In Watamu, although the loggerhead and leatherback turtles occur in the ocean, they do not breed on the Kenyan coast.

Rather, we experienced green, Olive Ridley, and hawksbill turtles nesting (the latter’s worldwide populations were decimated during the 20th century for their “tortoise shell” covering to their carapaces, which was made into all sorts of trinkets). During my stay in Kenya, I heard of at least two incidents when local people had died from eating hawksbill turtles.

Watamu is essentially a fishing village (using sea and creek) that has grown into a seasonal tourism destination, mainly for people coming from Europe.

Tourism draws local rural people into the village, seeking Kenyan shillings. When no work is available, they then turn to fishing as a means to survive. This adds pressure to the populations of sea turtles that visit this part of the coast, because as the fish supplies dwindle, more demand is placed on the sea turtles, either as a meal or as a trading item.

The project tries to engage the fishermen in sustainable fishing methods and also offers alternate sources of income generation, like bee keeping, tree growing, craft work, crab farming and ecotourism projects.

My Kenyan experience in sea turtle conservation, education and community development was a tremendous and very meaningful one. The Kenyan people who I worked with were warm, welcoming, hard working and dedicated to their tasks. • Local Ocean Trust: Watamu Turtle Watch has a webpage, a sea turtle adoption page and a volunteering programme.

Should anyone wish to contact the author, or Local Ocean Trust: Watamu Turtle Watch, e-mail

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