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Ghana promotes turtle tourism

Sea turtles face numerous obstacles to survival, but conservationists are determined to give them a helping hand.

A leatherback sea turtle begins her descent back to the ocean after laying 74 eggs on a beach in Ada Foah, Ghana, Dec. 17. This turtle is estimated to weigh 1,700 pounds. American marine biologist Phil Allman, middle in the blue shirt, checks for tags on the rear flippers. Leatherbacks are the largest species of sea turtles. Hatchlings will emerge from the sand in about two months and attempt to make their way toward the water. (Ken Maguire/GlobalPost)

ADA FOAH, Ghana — You don’t have to wait in line to watch sea turtles pull themselves onto shore to lay eggs, but you still need patience. Perhaps a flashlight, too.

Fishing villages, wildlife officials and American researchers in Ghana have joined forces on an eco-tourism project that protects endangered turtles, creates jobs and gives visitors a chance to see one of the world’s most intriguing reptiles.

For about $5, tourists receive guided nighttime walks on the beach in search of turtles. There’s no guarantee you’ll see one, but it’s worth the wait if you do. The female turtle crawls from the water, digs a circular chamber, drops her eggs, disguises the location by tossing sand about and returns to the ocean.

“At places like Sea World, they don’t have sea turtle shows where they jump through hoops,” said Phil Allman, an American who launched the project. “So sometimes to see a sea turtle you just have to work a little harder.”

Ghana researcher looks at sea turtle eggs
A Ghanaian conservationist looks at eggs laid by a sea turtle.
(Ken Maguire/GlobalPost)

Matilda Yoosen and Jos Gubbels, a married couple from Holland, were among a tourist group that came upon an olive ridley turtle nesting in the sand. They started walking at 8 p.m. and found the turtle 90 minutes later.

“We had eggs in our hands,” Matilda said. “The sky was full of stars. It was very nice.”

All seven species of sea turtle are either endangered or threatened. Worldwide populations aren’t known, but there has been a documented decline over the past 100 years. Pollution, commercial fishing, coastal erosion, development and poaching are among the causes. (Watch out of Venezuela on the critically endangered leatherback turtles.)

At least five species of turtles nested on Ghanaian beaches in the past, but today it’s believed to be just the leatherback, olive ridley and green turtles.

“I’m always optimistic that every little thing we do is going to make a big impact,” said Allman, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

In communities around Ada Foah, 50 miles east of the capital city Accra, poaching had been a problem. Nesting turtles were killed for their meat, shell and skin. Turtles caught in fishing nets were sold to poachers.

Attitudes began to change about 10 years ago when Dickson Agyeman, the Ghana Wildlife Division’s regional manager, launched public education programs. He also organized guided walks on the beach, but limited funding prevented growth.