Aimee Leslie - Global Cetacean and Marine Turtle Manager, WWF | WWF
Aimee Leslie - Global Cetacean and Marine Turtle Manager, WWF

Posted on 28 January 2012

This month we interview Aimee Leslie, Global Cetacean and Marine Turtle Manager, WWF. She shares the big picture of WWF's global efforts to save turtles, the importance of partnerships with other NGOs and local communities, and challenges encountered along the way.
This month we interview Aimee Leslie, Global Cetacean and Marine Turtle Manager, WWF. She shares the big picture of WWF's global efforts to save turtles, the importance of partnerships with other NGOs and local communities, and challenges encountered along the way. 

What are the core aspects of WWF's global efforts to save marine turtles?

WWF has determined what the main threats to marine turtles are, which the most vulnerable populations are, and where we have the capacity to have the most meaningful conservation impact to save these ambassadors of the ocean.

Therefore WWF is focusing on mitigating the impact of fisheries on turtle populations by reducing bycatch of these species through the implementation of turtle excluder devices (TEDs), circle hooks, and supporting new technologies research.

WWF has staff on nesting beaches, patrolling the beaches during the night and educating local communities during the day, to protect turtle nests from poachers. We are working with our local partners to tag turtles to help determine population trends and put satellite trackers on their backs to find out where their critical foraging habitats are. We are also seeking alternative livelihood opportunities for communities that need it, such as ecotourism.

WWF is working hand in hand with the communities, governmental authorities, and even international agreements to protect these species through legislation, on the ground management, research, and environmental education.

Because turtles do not live in one beach, country or continent, global efforts are needed to really make a difference for these endangered flagship species.

Where do we want to be 5 years from now? And what synergies are possible with what other NGOs are doing?

In 5 years there are many things we would like to achieve, but we cannot do it alone. Some of the things we would like to see happen is that bycatch is effectively reduced by the implementation of alternative fishing gear that is available in the market for reasonable prices. We would like to see coastal communities benefitting from sustainable economic activities, living in harmony with marine turtles and protecting them from poaching. We would like our knowledge about these incredible animals to increase, so we know how to protect them better, where they most need, and by doing so, conserve their habitats and all the other marine species.

It’s a big job, for which partnerships are key. WWF works with IUCN’s Marine Turtle Specialist Group; some of our experts on the ground are part of the group and have contributed greatly to advance our knowledge on these marine ambassadors. We participate in the International Sea Turtle Society, outreaching to other organizations and experts around the globe to exchange information, lessons learned and establish collaboration strategies.

But what is most important is that the people that are in contact with marine turtles either because they live near turtle nesting beaches, or fish in turtle foraging areas, are conscious of the importance of these species in the oceans balance, and therefore directly tied to our own wellbeing. Healthy turtles, means healthy oceans, and healthy oceans, means healthy people.

As a seasoned marine turtle campaigner in Latin America, what lessons do you bring from this part of the world in terms of effective tactics to protect the species?

Time and time again scientists have made the mistake of separating conservation from the people. Today we have learned that to protect a species it is vital to reach out to those that are most close to them. It’s incredible all you can learn from people that is not in turtle books. Because at the end of the day we, humans, have the power of destruction as well as protection, the choice is ours. But a collective effort is needed if we really want to make a difference, and that is what I learned.

It is by involving the communities, the people that care, and the media, that we can change the decisions our representatives in the Government are willing to make. I’ve seen it time and time again, we need to go out of our way, find those people, tell them what the problem is and how it affects them, get the media’s attention and let our representatives know we are not going to leave until they make the right decision!

In the decades-long fight to protect marine turtles, can you identify some successful milestones that have marked the NGO community's conservation efforts?

Turtle conservation has been marked by people who have made a difference, starting with:
  • Archie Carr in the mid 20th century, who helped established the Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica in 1975 and created the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (Sea Turtle Conservancy);
  • Peter Pritchard, who has worked over 40 years for turtle conservation, amassing over 12,000 tortoise and turtle skeletons (third largest collection in the world), increasing our knowledge about these species and their importance;
  • Jack Frazier, who is one of the promoter of the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles; and
  • Milton Kaufmann , founder of the Wider Caribbean Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) and instigator of the Caribbean Environment Programme Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol.
These are just a few names of the many people that dedicate their lives to turtle and ocean conservation that have and continue to make a difference today.

But there are so many people, whose names go unnoticed, like the Australian fishermen who developed the circle hook that WWF promotes around the globe to avoid turtle bycatch; or Sinkey Boone, the fisherman who invented the “Georgia Jumper”, that later led to the development of what today we call TEDs; or community leaders like Laura Jaen, who leads a local guides group in Baulas National Park Costa Rica, generating income and protecting turtles at the same time. Our goal should be to make the list of people fighting for turtle conservation longer by the minute!

Wildlife exploitation often focuses on regulatory interventions and law enforcement, but we hear less about efforts to reduce demand and change behaviours. Why is this case and how can we overcome the problem?

The reasons and methods used to consume wildlife vary so much from region to region and even country to country. Some consumption causes relate to economic need, in the case of turtles for their eggs or meat, there is also the selling of turtle shells for decoration to both locals and tourists, and the thinking that turtle eggs are aphrodisiacs.

Figuring out the main causes of demand is the first step, in the case were local socio-economic need is the driving factor; alternative livelihoods should be promoted hand in hand with environmental education. Where the drivers are lack of information or myths, these need to be confronted directly by reaching out to the public with trusted sources of information and catchy materials.

In Latin America for example, there have been successful campaigns to reduce the consumption of turtle eggs through adds with models saying “my man doesn’t need turtle eggs”, or famous wrestlers visiting the communities and saying “I don’t need turtle eggs”, attractive comic books have been made to reach out to the public in ways they enjoy. But we still have a long way to go and need to continue working in this direction.

What do you say to people who argue that environmentalists should worry more about humans than marine reptiles?

We do worry about humans, that is why we do what we do. 75% of the planet is covered in water, over 2 billion people worldwide depend on marine resources for a substantial portion of their protein*. Turtles are flagship species because they are representative of the ocean’s health.

Green turtles help “mow the lawn” of sea grass beds, keeping them at a healthy and ecologically productive length for other commercially important species. Hawksbill turtles feed on coral sponges, playing a vital role in this ecosystem.

Leatherback turtles feed on jellyfish and therefore help control overpopulation of these as recently seen in the Mediterranean. When turtles nest, they spread nutrients that keep the balance within the nesting beach vegetation and habitat. We need to protect the resources that we depend on.

We need the ocean, the ocean needs turtles, and therefore we need to protect these marine reptiles!

*MARE: Marine Applied Research & Exploration (www.maregroup.org)
Aimee Leslie - Global Cetacean and Marine Turtle Manager, WWF
© Aimee Leslie