The turtle whisperer of PNG trying to save the leatherbacks

The first time Wenceslaus Magun, a proud Papua New Guinean, saw a leatherback turtle was when 2 of them were floating on the surface of the Pacific Ocean in 1995. The creatures were attached to a fishing line, ready to be purchased and consumed by Magun and his family as a delicacy. He remembers this moment clearly – the turtles were unlike any other turtle he’d seen before. They were significantly larger with a soft, dark shell.

“I bought the 2 turtles, brought them to my village, and took them to my uncle who did some sort of reconciliation ceremony with the village,” says Magun. 

“That was the first time I saw a leatherback turtle, and I didn’t know about their critical status. After doing some research then I began to realise that this particular species is … pushed to the brink of extinction.”

Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are the largest living turtle species, growing up to 2 metres and weighing almost a tonne. Under the IUCN Red List, the West Pacific Ocean leatherback subpopulation is classified as ‘Critically Endangered’.

Leatherbacks – rightfully named because their backs are covered in a leathery skin rather than a hard shell – have the widest global distribution of any turtle and use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate through the oceans. Along with other sea turtles, leatherbacks are a keystone species in marine ecosystems, and are a part of important cultural traditions of many coastal indigenous people. 

Some of the biggest threats facing leatherback turtles in the Pacific include being caught as commercial fishing bycatch, rising sea-levels drowning nest sites and local consumption of leatherback meat and eggs.

“[Buying the leatherback turtles] was the biggest crime I ever committed – now I am paying the price and doing everything I can to protect the leatherback turtle. I realised they don’t have a voice to call out to us human beings to protect them,” Magun says “… up until now.”

It’s why Mas Kagin Tapani (MAKATA) was born, a local NGO striving for sea turtle restoration in the Madang Province of northern PNG, a crucial leatherback turtle nesting site. MAKATA fittingly translates to “Sea Guardian” in the local Takia or Bel languages of Madang.

Since its start in January 2009, MAKATA has been helping local communities understand the significance of critically endangered leatherback turtles, culturally and ecologically, and creating community-driven conservation efforts.

Magun is MAKATA’s project coordinator, and he’s spent the last few decades advocating for the protection of leatherback turtles in his hometown. He’s sometimes referred to as “The turtle whisperer,” but he’s actually a journalist, and he’s written his story which he sells to raise funds for MAKATA.

In the book, which doubles as a training and awareness report for people visiting the community, Magun explains how he learnt about species protection from scientists who came from all over the world, after hearing about the community regeneration project.

When MAKATA was first established, the community understood the needs of the science visitors and built them a guest house. The income supported the community who in turn supported the scientists. However, distribution of funds created jealousy among different groups within the community, and some members demolished the hut. Because of this, the international science community stopped funding research, and stopped visiting.

Now, many years later, there is still some contention between neighbouring communities that is impacting MAKATA’s outreach. Magun and MAKATA are working closely with the local communities to listen to their concerns and try to reach a consensus on any issues that arise. For these communities, cohesion is imperative in sustaining leatherback protection.

Despite some adversity, MAKATA is developing terrestrial and marine conservation areas along important nesting beaches, and leatherback nests are being relocated above the high tide mark. Community education has seen locals become influential in protecting the leatherbacks that they once saw as no more than a tasty, protein source.

People signing an agreement.
Nineng Clan Members sign a conservation deed. Credit: Supplied.

“MAKATA is … not only informing, educating and empowering the communities to protect, restore and increase the populations of the leatherback turtle but also … helping the communities so they can create their own management rules and systems and host it by themselves,” says Magun.

MAKATA has taught the local communities that if leatherback turtles become extinct the community’s food sources, cultural heritage and local biodiversity will be affected. The communities learnt that conserving leatherbacks can also come with an economic benefit, through housing tourists who travel across the world to see one of their special creatures. Essentially, as written on a MAKATA promotional t-shirt, “Look after the sea and it will look after you.”

However, the outreach of MAKATA is limited to the funding they receive. When initial funding was lost, Magun became a taxi driver, driving around a beaten-up cab in Port Moresby for 5 years to sustain the MAKATA project. But this wasn’t a long-term option. Since then, MAKATA has gained a few grants from varies bodies and currently has a bit of funding from the US government.

“[The project] is quite an expensive exercise,” says Magun. “The weakness is that we [MAKATA] rely too much on donors and when you lose funding from donors you lose the whole project.”

“I am trying to come up with a plan B, … for MAKATA to establish a company and operate a business so that we can sustain the program,” he says.

“I want MAKATA to be self-reliant, independent and sustainable … to employ full-time staff … and extend to conserving and protecting the whole marine ecosystem and … helping the communities establish forest conservation.”

Magun is striving to sustain a turtle conservation program similar to those in a small number of communities dotted around PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. These islands in the Pacific are crucial turtle sites, and Magun has become a pioneer for community-driven leatherback turtle conservation.

In a final statement, Magun asks, “If there are any individuals or donors willing to support MAKATA please come to our aid.”

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