Callie Veelenturf

Measuring sand characteristics at a leatherback nest

Measuring sand characteristics at a leatherback nest

 

Hello, I am Callie, from the United States. A 26 year old marine conservation biologist that is profoundly passionate about conservation research. My greatest interest lies in conservation issues that are intertwined with social science such as bycatch, poaching, and illegal wildlife trade, all of which directly affect sea turtle species. Through volunteering on several different sea turtle nesting projects in the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and West Africa, I have been transfixed by the leatherback sea turtle and studied how coastal development, poaching and climate change affect this species now and in the future. By studying them we open the doors to conversations regarding the biggest threats facing our oceans today: destructive fishing practices, climate change, and pollution.

The plight of the critically endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback was blatantly apparent to me when I walked the beach for three months in 2015 in Ostional, Costa Rica doing turtle surveys. On this beach typically as many as twenty females would nest multiple times, and in that season only one female laying one nest was observed. Out of the seven subpopulations of the massive leatherback sea turtle four are critically endangered primarily due to fisheries bycatch.

“Leatherbacks have survived 5 mass extinctions over the last 110 million years and are only now facing extinction themselves from various ocean basins due to consistent pressure from the human race”

Knowing the negative impact that past generations have had on this planet’s magnificent wildlife populations and that I have the ability to do something about it is what drives me forward. I feel an undying sense of urgency inside. I am currently working with a team of scientists in the East Pacific where leatherback bycatch is highest, to develop a multinational project to implement bycatch mitigation solutions, before it’s too late.

Deep sea biodiversity survey 218 m deep in Costa Rica.

Deep sea biodiversity survey 218 m deep in Costa Rica.

For my master’s research on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea in West Africa, I studied the impacts of climate change on the reproductive success of leatherback and green sea turtles. Our research team camped in tents for five months in the jungle adjoining the sea turtle nesting habitat. But turtles here are threatened by poaching, for their meat and also for their eggs, which are collected and sold in local markets sometimes as a delicacy. On Bioko Island I walked the beaches every night for five months, acting as a passive protection for nesting sea turtles against poachers. At times I slept with pepper spray and a knife by my head in my hammock in the jungle. For three poaching events, I was less than a 15-minute walk away from the poachers, and due to the pattern of the patrolling, I know they had been on the beach for at least a couple hours, waiting for the opportune moment when they would not be caught. Fortunately, on Bioko, many poachers attempt to hide their identity from conservationists, making walking the beach less dangerous than in other places in the world.

At one point during a patrol, we knew poachers were on the beach and we were guarding a leatherback.  She had been hit on the head with a machete and was obviously affected, but still alive. She was digging two nests, one with each flipper, instead of using both flippers to dig one nest. We were not sure if she would make it through the night. Fearing for other turtles on the beach, the team split up to continue patrolling. Not more than five minutes down the beach and into the dark, we saw a leatherback carapace turned upside down at the waterline. It had been completely carved out of all the muscle and fat, just lying there, moving slightly with each of the lapping waves. I stared at it in a sort of trance, in disbelief. I looked up with tears in my eyes and shown my headlamp down the beach. There were three sets of footprints and an egg trail leading into the night. The poachers were in such a hurry that they couldn’t be bothered to secure all their stolen eggs.  My partner and I collected all the eggs we could find and buried them in the sand, around the depth that this lost female would have, if she had had the chance.

“I think it’s our job to bring a lack of complacency and sense of urgency to the table, to raise our voices and be the boots on the ground daring to go to remote places to implement conservation strategies”

The good news is that after years of consistent poaching on Bioko with little to no enforcement of laws protecting endangered species, the first two arrests of poachers have been made during this past 2018/19 nesting season! The Bioko Marine Turtle Program staff is hopeful that this is a sign of increased vigilance of the Equatorial Guinean government to come.

I am hoping to start an NGO called The Leatherback Project (TLP) for the protection of this species all around the world. My desire is to develop innovative conservation solutions that positively affect leatherback populations and communities adjoining their habitat. I imagine that TLP would be involved in igniting and supporting wildlife conservation and community-based research programs that employ young conservationists in various parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia where there is the greatest need.

I want to be a marine scientist and conservation researcher, but not just that. I want to use my research or that of others to have a broader impact in policy, conservation management, community development, and local empowerment.

Leatherback Nest Excavation Training in Africa

Leatherback Nest Excavation Training in Africa

#FieldWorkFails

One morning on Bioko Island, I was working out of a remote satellite camp for my master’s research with a team of two Equatorial Guinean university students and two recent graduates from the U.S. We had made our camp right inside the treeline and up a small berm adjoining a sea turtle nesting beach. During this trip we patrolled between 9 and 10 hours every night looking for green and leatherback sea turtles. At around 5:00 in the morning, when we returned to pass out until midday, we found a green sea turtle that had climber her way into our camp, pulled a tent spike out of the ground and ripped a large slit in the tent! #NatureWins.

Callie Veelenturf

 
Josephine Crouch