I was returning home last Saturday to seek some relief from the sweltering heat of the late February sun, when I chanced upon a crowd at a corner of one of the famous narrow streets of my hometown of Cape Coast. Sections of the crowd were in animated arguments trying to establish and agree on the actual name of something. I looked down into the alley leading to the beach and got the gist of the situation.
Five well built young men were dragging a huge turtle, which I identified later when I got closer to be a leatherback turtle, on its back towards the beach. The trail of blood on the tarred street suggested that the animal had been dragged from the street down the paved alleyway to the sandy beach. This was my first real encounter with a giant of the ocean and as a coastal and marine scientist I was marveled, and so I followed the group to get a better comprehension of what was happening. The fact that these five men found it difficult dragging the animal gave an indication of how heavy it was. One could easily tell that the turtle was well over a meter long.
At the beach, I was disappointed when it was merely tied to a shack, as if it were a goat being sent to the slaughterhouse. I inquired of their intention and received a cheerful response of ‘we are going to sell it’.
There I was; a trained conservationist, who is well aware that this turtle has been listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). I got engaged in a conversation with the guys about the status of the animal and it importance to the marine ecosystem and tried to convince them to release the already injured animal back into the sea.
Well, from the start this arduous task of mine was doomed to fail. In reality, they had transported the vehicle from Ola three kilometres away with the intention of getting paid for their effort; any other scenario would not be considered. Disappointed as I was, I went home with the notion of getting a more suited organization or people on board to help rescue the animal. Several hours of surfing the net and making calls bore no fruits. I resigned myself and decided to see what would eventually become the fate of this marine reptile. On my fifth trip to the beach mid morning the third day, the animal had been slaughtered with three women preparing it on the beach for sale at markets outside Cape Coast.
This event as I witnessed fully demonstrates the situation of coastal and marine conservation efforts in Ghana, which is either not coordinated or entirely non-existent. Certain reports in the scientific community about the leatherback turtle in Ghana may not be entirely accurate such as Claire Tanner’s article in the Marine Turtle Newsletter 136:9-12 in 2013 which mentioned that there has not been a confirmed sighting of the leatherback in Ghana for over a decade. These fishermen and women stated that they usually caught some of these turtles between September and December each year, though they did not capture any in 2013.
When animals are classified as endangered, the survival of every single individual is critical for the continued survival of that species. Regardless of the idea behind the conservation of nature, I have always had the opinion that the present generation has a responsibility to make sure that when the next generation arrives they would not blame us for fully exploiting all resources leaving them with few to none to also benefit from.
The killing of this leatherback that came to lay it eggs does not come as a surprise to me. Already, these rare organisms as well as other coastal and near shore creatures face severe threats from many other activities that we engage in along coastal Ghana most especially coastal sand and stone mining which accelerates coastal erosion. It is quite clear that in Ghana we tend to favour exploiting all manner of available resources with disregard to the long term economic, social and environmental consequence.
The age old debate of resource exploitation versus resource conservation is one that has waged on since pre-independence days. Sadly, exploitation seems to have won almost all the battles; our depleted forest resources and degraded coastal landscapes are veritable examples of the eventual outcomes of our decisions. We have always seemed to be interested in the ‘now’ more than the ‘future’ which is not in consonance with the principles of ‘sustainable development’.
As I see it, if there is no plan or policy to manage resources or if existing policies are not put into practice, it only presupposes that individuals will not adhere to the ‘rules’, but rather exploit these resources the least opportunity they get.
The era of blaming relevant state agencies and people for not undertaking their assigned responsibilities with the required seriousness should be behind us at this juncture in the 21st century. What we must do as a nation striving to obtain economic freedom is to look to the future with consensus and proactive thinking in order to manage and utilize wisely the few remaining natural resources that we still possess. We should be able to develop a plan and teach our people to understand these concepts in order to successfully apply them.
With regards to the conservation of our natural resources and the general environment, we should not underestimate our citizenry by thinking that they are illiterates or that they are incapable of understanding. Across the country, there have been several successful implementations of community-based resource management projects, where locals have been identified as being central to the success.
Let’s all strive to think about those who will come tomorrow. Let’s all think and act Green.