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.”
|A Ghanaian conservationist looks at eggs laid by a sea turtle.
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.
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.