Shell Beach: A hideout for the endangered
For over 26 years, Guyana’s Shell Beach located on the Atlantic Coast of Barima-Waini (Region One), has been the refuge for four of the world’s endangered species of marine turtles.
They are;the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Green (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea).
These exquisitely massive reptiles arrive from March to August every year during the night to lay their eggs.
Stretched out near the Venezuelan border, Shell Beach extends for approximately 145 km. But due to the harsh reality that these turtles are often slaughtered for their meat and eggs, a non-governmental conservation program called the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society (GMTCS), was founded by Dr Peter Pritchard and Romeo De Freitas to mitigate this. Amerindians from the nearby communities are also a part of this effort which began since the 1960’s to protect the nesting sea turtles.
The role of the sea turtle should not be underestimated as they play a vital role in maintaining the balance of the marine eco-system. The turtles along with manatees consume seagrass thereby keeping it short. It is imperative that this grass is short as would prove to be a conducive breeding ground for other aquatic life. Travelling to this natural landmark is quite a task and an adventure all the same. Once you arrive there, you would easily notice the thousands of small pieces of broken shells covering the spectacular beach, hence its name.
During the night, turtles can be seen making their way onto the shore. They then use their flippers to create craters that are almost two feet deep on the beach and proceed to lay from 50 to 200 legs depending on the species. They then cover it with sand and head back to the ocean. The eggs take about two months to hatch.
The conservation programme allows for the protection of the turtles and their eggs until they are hatched and are assisted to the ocean. The three main donor agencies which have been faithfully supporting the project from the beginning are Chelonian Research Institute, Simpson Oil Limited Inc. (earlier Shell Antilles-Guyana) and the World Wildlife Funds.
According to the GMTCS, the turtle population over the years had developed and data analysis of nesting females had also expanded. But it is still a challenge to reduce the instances of human activities such as fishing in the nearby coastal waters and in front of nesting beaches, which contribute to the loss of many adult turtles that had been caught accidently and drowned in nets.
But Defreitas has reported that nature had also played a major role in redesigning the nesting habitat by erosion, some of which becomes wonderful nesting spots, while others have been blocked by mud bars and become unsuitable for nesting. He is of the opinion that these natural causes lent to many of the disadvantages the endangered turtles face during their nesting period, especially those that may venture to other beaches, unprotected by rangers and suffer the consequences by the hands of the local fishermen.
Moreover, GMTCS today, still holds steadfast to its commitment to record and tag marine turtles, ensure data collection on all monitoring activities, and promote its annual Education Awareness program.
Special programs have also been initiated to improve the capacities of rangers. It is being conducted by the GMTCS and other agencies, such as The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA), Protected Area Commission, WWF, Iwokrama, Repsol and the Guyana Defence Force Coast Guard.
De Freitas had called on all stakeholders especially from the local fishing communities to support the conservation efforts and avoid the practice of turtle eggs harvesting and killing of the adult female turtles, and even the purchasing of the meat and eggs within the communities.
While it was without any legal protection for some time, the magnificent beach has been classified as a Protected Area, with robust legislation that prohibits the removal of the endangered species from within that area.