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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Protecting Sea Turtles in Vietnam by Cultivating Local Stewards and Taking on Traffickers

Levi Novey, in our International Affairs Program, tells us about some of the work of the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund

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A green sea turtle rests atop a bed of sea grass, one of its primary food sources. Photo by Baillieux Daniel via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

In partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Vietnam (IUCN-Vietnam), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through our Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, is cultivating community backing and supporting a volunteer program to monitor and protect nesting green turtles in Vietnam’s Con Dao National Park, home of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches remaining in the country.

Volunteers help Con Dao’s park rangers protect more than 1,000 green turtle nests and about 250 nesting females. With a small staff, the rangers need volunteers to ensure that they can patrol the many remote beaches scattered throughout the Con Dao Archipelago, and protect the sea turtles and their nests from theft and disturbance. More than 500 applicants compete for 50 volunteer positions that rotate every 10 days throughout the peak of the nesting season. Volunteers, including teachers, students and health workers, camp out in remote locations, often a new experience for them.

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Volunteers who recently monitored sea turtle nesting sites in Con Dao National Park. Photo by Earl Possardt/USFWS

Earl Possardt, program officer for our Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, recently visited Con Dao National Park and program staff to observe and better understand the successes and challenges the program faced. “The real success of the partnership is that I could feel the palpable excitement, energy, and enthusiasm for sea turtle conservation among the volunteers,” he says. “Many of the participants say it has changed their lives.”

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Nguyen Hai Van was among those volunteers who found the volunteer program to be inspirational. Photo by IUCN-Vietnam

One of those volunteers is Nguyen Hai Van, who says: "It is difficult to express the emotion that we have experienced over such a short period. We did not simply acquire more knowledge about sea turtles and the ecological environment, but about what people could do and the need to protect their habitat and conserve species that are at the edge of extinction. Furthermore, we were offered a great opportunity to experience a different life in nature, a free spirit, and learn about responsibility toward society. Thanks to all of the rangers, I had a chance to learn more about life and admire their high sense of responsibility."

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Volunteers monitor a beach with limited access in the Con Dao Archipelago. Photo by Earl Possardt/USFWS 

Combating the Incidental Capture of Turtles

Vietnam's once robust and regionally significant hawksbill and green sea turtle nesting populations are now depleted and only remnants of their historic numbers. The 1,900-mile coast of the country provides vast areas of marine turtle foraging habitat where interactions with fishermen result in a high level of sea turtle bycatch mortality. Since 2007, we have worked with IUCN-Vietnam to reduce incidental deaths of sea turtles by developing national and regional education programs for coastal communities and fishermen to encourage release of turtles that are accidentally caught.

Thu Hien, IUCN- Vietnam Marine and Coastal Resources Program Coordinator, says that “we need long-term conservation efforts which can help maintain and restore turtle populations. Communication and social networks are great tools to save sea turtles on nesting beaches and near-shore fisheries in Vietnam.”

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Nguyen Hai Van stands by an educational sign about the sea turtle program.

Taking on Illegal Wildlife Trafficking to Protect Sea Turtles

Vietnam is also a hub for international trafficking in marine turtles from within Vietnam and neighboring countries to China. With nesting green turtle females valued at $1,000 in the illegal wildlife trade and eggs for $7 each on the mainland, patrolling the beaches is vital to protect nesting populations. It is illegal to trade, sell, or buy sea turtles in Vietnam. All seven species of sea turtles are granted protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the only international treaty to specifically address wildlife trade.

All marine turtle species except the flatback turtle, fund in the waters of Australia, are also listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Since 2012, Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV), with Marine Turtle Conservation Fund support, has been investigating trafficking routes, identifying the major kingpins, and working with national and local police to stop this trafficking. Last year this resulted in the bust of a major trafficking ring with initially more than 1,000 shells (mostly from hawksbill turtles) confiscated in a warehouse destined for China. Following subsequent law enforcement activities, the total grew to more than 7,000 marine turtles. According to ENV, it’s the single largest seizure of marine turtle shells in world history. Learn more about the investigation and subsequent busts in this video.

Truong Thi My Chi, a teacher who volunteered for the IUCN sea turtle conservation program, has incorporated some of the knowledge she gained about protecting sea turtles from trafficking into her curriculum.

“After the trip, I provided lectures to three classes with about 300 students in total. When I shared information about the program, I received great sympathy from my students. They almost knew nothing before and were very excited! Before telling them about the program, they had invited me to join them for wildlife meat, but after listening to the lecture they changed their mind and invited me for chicken! I am so happy to have joined this program and have received great encouragement from my students," says Chi.

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About the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund

Our International Affairs Program administers the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, which was authorized by Congress in the Marine Turtle Conservation Act of 2004.

Once abundant, marine turtle populations now are a fraction of what they once were. Threats to marine turtles include the loss of nesting beaches to human development; harvest and poaching of turtles for their eggs, meat, and shell; manmade disasters such as oil spills; accidental or intentional capture in fishing nets, trawls and hooks; and the degradation of grass beds and coral reefs that they rely on.

In 2015, the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund provided grants to 41 projects in 28 countries worldwide. We also lead conservation efforts for the five species of sea turtles nest on U.S. beaches

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