Turtle diaries

2013-04-08 00:00

WITHOUT a comprehensive sea turtle conservation programme introduced on the KwaZulu-Natal coastline in the early sixties “we would have lost the lot”, says George Hughes, and he should know as he has been involved with the programme from shortly after its inception.

A recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Sea Turtle Society, Hughes has now written a book, Between the Tides: In Search of Sea Turtles, drawing on his personal experience to provide an informative and entertaining look at sea turtle conservation.

Hughes describes his introduction to turtles as “an accident”. A happy accident, as it turns out, that occurred in 1965 while he was studying zoology at the then University of Natal following four years working as a game ranger with the former Natal Parks Board at Giant’s Castle. “The Parks Board gave me a vacation job and asked if I would like to join the Turtle Survey.”

The survey had been set up in 1963 by Peter Potter, assistant director of the Natal Parks Board, to protect turtles on the Maputaland coast. “I joined the survey, never suspecting that turtles would dictate a large part of my life for the next 48 years,” says Hughes.

Inspired by these amazing creatures Hughes did a geography thesis on the sea turtle as an economic entity. This was an innovative approach in the sixties when the concept of the sustainable use of wildlife as an economic resource was barely recognised. In a previous Witness interview, Hughes pointed out that the Natal Parks Board was a leader in this field “and I have always regarded sustainable use as a viable conservation tool”.

Hughes says sustainable use is very much to the fore in the current debate about rhino horn and noted South Africa’s support for a legal trade in ivory which was only defeated by one vote in the 1997 Cites meeting. “I’m a firm advocate of sustainable use backed by good science and common sense.”

Common sense comes naturally to a Scot like Hughes who was born in Aberdeen and came to South Africa as a child with his family in 1947. “My father, a ship’s engineer, emigrated in 1946 bringing out a ship for the Johnson Line. We followed a year later in the Carnavon Castle liner when it was still a troop ship.”

The Hughes family first settled in Benoni before relocating to Howick. Hughes went to school in Estcourt after which he had a series of jobs with companies such as Shell and Masonite before hiking around Europe and Africa for two years. He returned to South Africa in 1961 to become a game ranger with the Natal Parks Board.

He followed his zoology degree with an honours and then a doctorate before taking up employment with the Oceanic Research Institute (ORI). “Then I came back as a scientist at the Parks Board dealing with turtles and trout, and later I went into management.”

Hughes was appointed director of the Natal Parks Board in 1988. “And I kept up my interest in turtles while in management.”

Hughes continued as CEO when the NPB morphed into Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Since his retirement in 2001, he has remained actively interested in turtles and their conservation.

Hughes is upbeat about the state of local turtle conservation. “We use our turtles benignly for tourism. Fortunately, two of the species found here — the Leatherback and the Loggerhead — are of commercial interest and there has been no commercial interest shown in the other three species — the Hawksbill — valued for its tortoiseshell — the Green turtle and the Olive Ridley Turtle.”

“We are very fortunate that we have an iconic programme and that the local communities have really come on board and support the programme.”

Hughes began writing Between the Tides in January 2012 “and finished it in June”. A major source for the book were the diaries he has kept over the years. “I don’t keep a daily diary, I’m not a Samuel Pepys, but if I go on a trip or an expedition I always keep a diary of it.

“Every young scientist should maintain an expedition diary. You open it up and read just one word and a whole world of experience floods back.”

One of those experiences, related in the book, features a face-to-face meeting with the members of the Rooi Gevaar.

Hughes was attending a conference in Kiel, Germany, in 1971, a time when South Africa enjoyed polecat status thanks to apartheid. Another delegate was F.A. Pasternak, marine biologist and son of Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago. He was a “very large man” , says Hughes, and came with a colleague and a political officer. Hughes introduced himself to Pasternak along with his two colleagues. “He peered down at us suspiciously and said, ‘Wher-r-re do you come from?’ I replied that we were from South Africa, to which he replied: ‘I know Durban and Cape Town. Beautiful country … terrible government!’ Mildly stung by this observation, I asked him where he came from, to which he replied in surprise ‘Rooshia!’ I immediately replied: ‘Ah yes. Beautiful country, terrible government!’ All three Russians looked at us then burst out laughing and said: ‘Come, we drink vodka!’” Thereafter, the two groups were inseparable for the rest of the conference.

“Not all conferences are such a joy however,” writes Hughes. One such was the Western Atlantic Symposium held in 1989 in San Jose, Costa Rica, devoted to sharing the best available turtle conservation techniques. South Africa was a leader in the field. When Hughes was announced as being “from South Africa” many of the delegations, which included politicians as well as conservationists, walked out. Among them were the Mexican and Caribbean delegates.

Fearing his continued presence would mean the collapse of the symposium, he offered to leave. A compromise was reached that allowed him to attend all sessions as long as he didn’t speak publicly. The conference went on to be a great success, and ironically, Hughes’s conservation and biologist colleagues from Mexico and the Caribbean, in defiance of their political masters, invited him to sit at their table at the final banquet. “That was such an amazing thing to do,” recalls Hughes. “It demonstrated that my scientific colleagues believed politics had nothing to do with the exchange of scientific information. That was hugely courageous.”

• Between the Tides: In Search of Sea Turtles by George Hughes is published by Jacana.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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