The Conflict Islands in Papua New Guinea are a remote, uninhabited island group in the Coral Sea. This summer I spent two weeks there completing an internship with the Conflict Island Conservation Initiative (CICI), monitoring the local populations of green and hawksbill sea turtles.
The Conflict Islands are a highly biodiverse region, and an important nesting site for sea turtles. However, sea turtles have long been a food source for the local communities around the Conflict Islands. Today, the most significant threat to sea turtles on the Islands is poaching. With so many other threats affecting sea turtles today such as ocean pollution, introduced predators and climate change, the additional strain from the harvest of nesting mothers and their eggs from these island beaches is pushing the species rapidly towards extinction. This is a problem CICI is directly addressing.
I joined 15 other volunteers and 14 local employees aboard our boat, the Undersea Explorer, in Alotau, Milne Bay. From here it was a quick 10 hour journey out to the first island, Panasesa, which serves as a home base for the researchers in the Conflicts. This is also where the turtle hatcheries and nurseries are. Less than one in a thousand turtle hatchlings will survive to adulthood. In an effort to give as many hatchlings the the best chance at survival possible, eggs from some nests are transferred to the hatchery along with eggs rescued from poachers to hatch in relative safety.
The main aim of the internship was to develop a baseline population dataset of the turtles as part of a long term monitoring program in the area. This way, the success of any conservation efforts on the islands can be assessed. To monitor the turtle population we tagged the flippers of female turtles as they came up the beaches every evening to lay their eggs. Turtles that had been previously tagged and recaptured were also recorded. Every evening we left the Undersea Explorer and travelled in small dinghies to the islands. We would patrol the island beaches looking for turtles until the tide went out too far for turtles to make it over the reef. Many of our Papua New Guinean guides were previously turtle hunters. Now they are devoting their incredible knowledge of the island environment and turtle behaviour towards protecting turtles.
In collaboration with Christine Hof from WWF we attached satellite trackers to every hawksbill turtle that we found on patrol. Long prized for their beautiful shells, hawksbill turtles are now critically endangered. We hope that the satellite trackers will help map the migration paths of the turtles and contribute to the conservation efforts to protect these species.
On our last day of the internship we said goodbye to the Conflict Islands and travelled to Tube Tube (pronounced Tooba-Tooba) Island in the neighbouring Engineer group. Natalie, our marine biologist supervisor, gave a talk to the community about the threats facing sea turtles and how best to protect them for future generations. Ultimately, the success of CICI will be from the positive contribution of local communities.
I had an amazing time in Papua New Guinea and I am so glad I got the opportunity to travel to such an incredible place. It was a privilege to work in such a biodiverse environment and meet wonderful people, especially lead researcher Natalie and the locals who are doing such amazing work in their communities. I look forward to seeing how CICI continues to grow and have a positive impact on the health of endangered sea turtle populations and I hope to be back in the Conflicts before long.