Pita Qarau and the Turtles of Yadua
Like many in world history, this island revolution was resisted on many fronts but eventually the spirited fight put up by an old time turtle hunter, won the war.
Pita Qarau is now 49 years old. He can remember the days when he hungered for turtle meat, watching with a predatory gleam in his eyes from the shoreline for the ancient creatures that swam around the island.
Ever since he could understand words, he was indoctrinated with the gospel of turtles – they are the main source of meat and as a traditional hunter he had a duty to his kinsmen to understand everything about hunting it.
The fact that he was the son of Isikeli Bete, the island ‘jabeni ni caka vonu’ (champion turtle hunter) instilled in the young, impressionable lad an even greater desire to shine.
Within thirty years of hunting he had amassed a reputable record recognised throughout Bua province. The hunters of Yadua were the turtle gurus of the province and many sought their counsel.
“My father was the man and the ‘vanua’ always deferred to him when there was a feast or any traditional and social gathering because he always brought home the biggest turtles.
“He had all the tools as well, knew where the giant turtles could be found, their movements and the best way to catch them. He was also my teacher, and when he died his passion for hunting flowed in my blood,” Qarau said.
Bete the champion hunter also sired five strong boys and they hunted as a pack.
“We went as brothers, we didn’t just get the big ones, and we got any turtle regardless of the size. Turtle meat was sweet and because in Yadua we don’t have any other livestock on the island, turtle meat was the main delicacy for any social occasion.”
He estimated that during his killing spree years, he ended the lives of roughly 810 turtles. The biggest one caught was for his wedding feast.
“It took seven men to carry the turtle and just one fed the whole village,” he said. He cringed at the memory.
In 2008, Qarau met Merewalesi Laveti and the WWF South Pacific Marine Species team at Nakalou village in Macuata for a turtle monitors awareness training workshop.
On that fated day, the charismatic megafauna found a friend for Qarau became a Dau Ni Vonu or turtle monitor. The DnV network is an initiative of the Marine Species Program of WWF South Pacific, built on the vision of the Fiji National Sea Turtle Recovery Plan of growing turtle numbers.
His transformation was an emotional one.
“I cried when I heard about their sad life cycle, the difficulties they face and how men like me make things worse for them. I thought about my children how they may never see turtles which are a rich part of my culture,” he said.
“I heard about the Turtle Moratorium and I felt my time had come to stand up for a good cause.”
Marama ni Yadua, a 25 year old hawksbill turtle nesting on a secluded beach known as Talice located north east of Yadua Taba island (the crested iguana sanctuary), was also a reason for his change.
The hawksbill is Fiji’s first satellite tagged turtle.
Other turtles that were also tagged continued to reinforce the change in Qarau who leads the turtle monitors network on the island.
Qarau related that turtle monitors and some islanders caught up with Adi Laveti Yadua or Miss Panda Voyager while she nested on the beach.
“We watched while she laid eggs, and she watched us back. We could see the tears flowing down her face and it was so touching and sad,” he said.
Every turtle caught and tagged was lovingly named by islanders – Marama ni Yadua, Tunimata a loggerhead turtle named after the island’s chief, Adi Laveti Yadua or Miss Panda Voyager another loggerhead turtle, Vueti Yadua and Lady Dau Ni Vonu.
“In the beginning they laughed at me when I refused to entertain turtle meat consumption, we held village meetings and appealed to everyone to stop,” he said.
“But over time islanders also began to see the importance of keeping turtles alive, and they saw this from the way we lived our lives.
“They also began to take an interest in turtles beyond its nutritional value but we still had critics because of the huge demand for turtles in the market,” he said.
“Yet as we involved villagers in tagging, beach clean ups and more awareness the change was enormous. Turtles have become members of our family, we love to follow the progress they make trekking the oceans and get emotional when we find them staying close to Yadua."
Twenty five turtles have been tagged so far and villagers have also observed an increase in turtle sightings and nesting sites close to the village.
“And if it can happen on Yadua, I am hoping the change can happen throughout Fiji.”