Salome Topo, Sustainable Livelihood Officer, WWF-Solomon Islands Programme, Gizo Field Office, Solomon Islands
What is your background and what brought you to marine conservation?I have a Bachelors of Arts, majoring in Economics, Management and Public Administration from the University of the South Pacific, Suva, in Fiji.
My main reason for following a business course is that I was interested to work in any related business sector. However, after my graduation from the University of the South Pacific I returned to the Solomon Islands. But because of ethnic tension--a conflict between Guadalcanal and Malaita, the two major Islands in the Solomon Islands--I decided not to live in Honiara but came back to Gizo instead, the headquarter of Western Province. There I looked for a job with NGOs, the Provincial Government and the private sector.
When I joined WWF as Sustainable Livelihood Officer, I learned about the main aims and objectives of the organization. I explored the marine conservation work that has been done here in the Western Province and was motivated to join because I learned that the majority of the population in the Solomon Islands depends on marine resources for survival. Thus, doing conservation work with the communities is saving lives in terms of food security for present and future generations, as most marine resources are diminishing. The only way to maintain and sustain endangered marine resources and species is to do conservation work with the people, and people must accept the programme both in principle and in terms of its practical implications.
In addition, WWF is an equal opportunity organization where there is strong teamwork. I really enjoy my work and learning a lot from the in-house training as well as attending other training outside the organization.
How easy or difficult is it to work in this field in the Solomon Islands?About 80% of the people here in the Solomon Islands live near coastal areas and they depend entirely on the subsistence economy, where marine resources are vital for both food and income. The richness of the marine biodiversity in the Solomon Islands has compelled WWF to come and work here to conserve marine sites for food security.
Introducing the term “conservation” to Solomon Islanders seems difficult as most people own the land and sea, where they live close to natural resources. The natural resources are “part of them” -- they don’t see any benefits in conserving natural resources as they consider that conservation would lead to No Take Zones.
So sometimes people ask the question “conservation for who?” Getting people to understand the benefits of conservation takes a long time because they own, and live with, their natural resources and conservation seems to be a disadvantage to their lives. However, the ongoing education and awareness programme is raising awareness within the Western Province.
Another difficulty is that as with any project in the community, people always have high expectations that they will receive cash. They always think of money to meet priority needs in the community. Environmental work may actually be the least priority in the community in some cases.
The aims and objectives of the project really need to match with the priorities of the community, and it is necessary to align the resource owners’ mindset with the project aims before the project can be implemented.
Most communities here in the Solomon Islands are Melanesian, we have a common language, our cultures are slightly similar, and people are very friendly and kind so it is easy to interact with the community and consult with them. So when the community accepts us to work with them we always build strong links and good relationships, which makes our programme easier to accomplish. There is always understanding and compromise between the community and the organization when issues arise. We always solve them and make sure that we maintain our status with the community.
What are the main challenges in turtle conservation in your part of the world?WWF Solomon Islands works closely with a community-based organization called Tetepare Descendants Association (TDA) for turtle conservation work. There are six turtle beaches that this local NGO works on. The main challenges we encountered while doing the turtle activities are as follows:
- Turtles are one of the cultural foods in our society. For any big event such as weddings, turtles are always on the menu.
- Poaching is the main challenge as most people eat turtle eggs and meat.
- Lack of good and strong leadership in the islands, especially for conservation work.
- The isolation of the islands makes fieldwork expensive when going to other turtle nesting sites, especially in Rendova and Hele Islands. As they are far from Tetepare where the turtle monitors are based , monitoring on the island is rare -- giving many opportunities for poachers to enter the conservation area.
- Lack of communication in the field as there is no equipment to communicate with other turtle monitors.
- Sometimes, there is lack of funding to sustain turtle work. Most people do not volunteer to do the job, so they need to have an incentive for their work in the field.
The Sea Turtle Symposium (STS) is the most important sea turtle meeting globally - how did it feel to participate?The STS is the first global meeting that I have ever attended. I felt a little intimidated at first seeing so many turtle experts from over 80 countries. But when I actually attended the meeting, I felt that I had a great opportunity because it allowed me to connect with other turtle experts, practitioners and participants. Through sharing and networking, I gained a lot of knowledge from this meeting.
What are the key lessons from this meeting that you took back with you? How applicable are they to your work in the Pacific?
The key lessons that I have learned from all the presentations and discussions are that conserving endangered turtles is not an easy task as turtles travel to all parts of the world and most people eat turtle meat and eggs.
Turtles have value in many cultural beliefs and in some religions. In fact, turtle meat and egg consumption is seen across other parts of Asia as well. All of us must work together to make turtle conservation effective globally, and connect to each other in sharing information--at the international, national and provincial level, down to our communities.
Education and awareness programmes are an effective tool for people to learn the importance and the benefits of turtles, where the message is passed from one person to another. Thus, ongoing education and awareness programmes are vital for all of us doing turtle conservation work globally. We need to know the effective way of conserving turtles so that we can apply it in our own countries.
Climate change is another major issue that affects turtles nesting globally, and most turtle project sites are building hatcheries to assist in relocating the turtle eggs.
What was your presentation/poster about?I participated in the “Brown Bag Day” which WWF-US organized on the last day of the STS meeting at the WWF-US office. The meeting was organized for WWF-US staff to hear about the turtle work in Malaysia, Indonesia and Solomon Islands.
My presentation was based on our turtle work at Tetepare Island, Western Province. I updated them on progress with the turtle work at 6 beaches and the challenges we have encountered, along with the benefits of the turtle work that we introduced to the communities.
What do you see as the main benefits for practitioners like yourself in the Coral Triangle to participate in such global events?The main benefit of participating in the Sea Turtle Symposium was to connect with other practitioners, turtle experts, donors and others. I had the opportunity to meet with people who have the same concern about protecting turtles. By connecting with other groups globally, we can share our experience with turtle work and learn how others do turtle conservation in their area.
Also I have learned what other countries in the Coral Triangle, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are doing in terms of turtle work.
Last but not the least, I would like to acknowledge and thank the following programmes and people for their funding support which enabled me to attend the 33rd Turtle Symposium in Baltimore: Dr Lida Pet Soede – WWF Coral Triangle Global Initiative, Catherine Plume and Cassie O’Connor (WWF US) and WMPO (WWF PNG and WWF Solomon Islands).