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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.

Enter Allman, who came to Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar to establish the first long-term sea turtle research and conservation program in Ghana. It’s a joint project with the University of Ghana to collect data on nesting and population trends.

Allman started HATCH, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization to raise money for turtle programs. He created a website, and persuaded the Bradt travel guide to publish the turtle information.

Agyeman says this nesting season — November through March — has been the best for tourism. They’re on course for 150 tourists, compared to fewer than 10 when the project began in 2006.

“The year that we see more turtles, we have more visitors,” he said. “It looks like people come and see, then go tell their friends, and they also come.”

Tourists arrange the turtle walks through Agyeman, who provides transportation between hotels and the beach. A Ghana Wildlife guide escorts the tourists on the walk. Allman and his researchers, who survey the beach on ATVS from about 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., call guides to give turtle locations.

“It’s helping the tourism industry here,” said Gad Ackwerh, owner of the Cocoloko Beach Resort hotel, adding that business is up 15 percent from five years ago.

Allman includes hotel contact information on his website.

“The goal is to show the local communities here that there’s an economic benefit to having turtles on the beach,” said 35-year-old Allman, who returns to Ghana each December. “[Villagers] see more and more tourists coming in, bringing their money to buy food in the market, to eat the restaurants, to stay at the hotels. That supports and benefits everyone, including the turtles.”

A local watermelon farmer, who identified himself as Victor, said the community would earn more revenue if turtles were captured and put on display so tourists could pay to see them during the daytime.

Turtles nest every two or three years, so for data to be useful, the program must survive long term. Unlike the past two seasons, this nesting season has been busy, for example. The leatherback featured in the accompanying photo, taken Dec. 17, was tagged two weeks prior so it was at least her second trip to the beach. They can nest up to eight times in a season, producing up to 800 eggs. Those surviving into adulthood can live up to 100 years.

Allman’s team this season attached satellite tags on four olive ridley turtles to gain more clues about migration patterns. Sea turtles can swim thousands of miles between feeding and nesting areas. They nest in tropical and sub-tropical areas, including along beaches in North Carolina and southward, and the Gulf of Mexico.

The success over the past few years has attracted interest across Ghana. A team from the University of Cape Coast visited Ada Foah recently, watching the tagging process and talking to Ghana Wildlife officials. They hope to replicate the program for Ghana’s central and western coastline.

“We’ve learned quite a lot,” said K.A. Monney, a professor in the university’s entomology and wildlife department. “Public relations is very important. In our part of the world establishing a very good community relationship with the scientific community is paramount.”

Monney had never seen a sea turtle before Dec. 17, when he caught a glimpse of the leatherback — estimated weight 1,700 pounds — and an olive ridley the same night.

“I didn’t consider that it’s such a huge monster, especially the leatherback,” he said.