The clash between culture and conservation

By Ally Stocks

This is the second instalment of Project Seahorse graduate student Ally Stocks's three-part field notes from Vietnam. You can read the first instalment here.

On the central-eastern coast of Phu Quoc Island is the village of Ham Ninh, where I often slept at the home of a local family. They were happy to host my research assistant, Thanh, and me, giving us a roof over our heads and feeding us plenty of fresh seafood. In return, we’d bring them fruit and I’d help their daughters practice their English.

One beautiful calm evening, I walked to the end of the wooden dock by our house to gaze up at the stars. It was a serene moment — something I didn’t experience often during the hectic months of my field season. I could hear my host family chatting away happily, lying in hammocks or sitting on blue plastic stools. Thanh came over and told me they were preparing for a feast tomorrow. He spoke vaguely about something illegal, but I didn’t understand what he meant, so I brushed it off and lay down in a hammock to start reading.

A little while later, men drove up to the dock in a small boat. I didn’t pay much attention. I was engrossed in my book.

Thanh tapped my shoulder, “Look,” he said.

Dumped on the dock on its back, tied up in thick blue ropes, was a sea turtle. Its flippers turned in slow, desperate circles. 

It was — to the best of my knowledge — a green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas. Green sea turtles can be found across the globe in subtropical and tropical oceans. They are listed as endangered by the IUCN and in Appendix I of CITES, meaning they are protected from exploitation in most countries, including here in Vietnam. It is illegal to collect, harm, or kill them, yet they are still caught for food in many countries.

According to local fishers, sea turtles used to be found much more commonly in the seagrass beds surrounding Phu Quoc Island. Other rare species, like the dugong, also used to frequent the area. However, due to habitat loss and the expansion of local fisheries, these species have become increasingly rare. 

Though the sea turtle trade is banned, when trawl boats catch the turtles they fishers sell them rather than return them to the sea. Seeing the massive animal — it must have been 70 kilograms — flailing upside-down on the dock, I was shocked and couldn’t control the tears that started to roll down my cheeks. My host auntie grabbed my arms and shook me, concerned, while the boys laughed at me.

“Thanh,” I said. “Please tell them I will do anything if they will put the sea turtle back in the water. Anything.”

But there wasn’t anything I could do — by the morning, the sea turtle had been chopped up for soup and other delicacies. I politely declined our invitation to the feast, and we continued on to the next fishing village to continue conducting seahorse research. 

Riding along on my motorbike, I passed a giant billboard made by Wildlife at Risk, an NGO that is dedicated to the long-term conservation of Vietnam’s threatened biodiversity. Wildlife at Risk aims to combat the illegal wildlife trade and promote the conservation of endangered species and their habitats. Despite their best efforts, Wildlife at Risk has a tough job — ending illegal wildlife trade is an immensely difficult task. Nevertheless, I got in touch with them and gave them every detail I could about the green turtle that had been caught. 

During the four months I spent on Phu Quoc Island, that was the only sea turtle I saw bought and consumed by  locals. But I heard stories about other turtles being poached, and I struggled to understand how people could ignore the fact that these animals are endangered. 

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Thanh explained to me me that as species become increasingly rare, they become more valuable and a greater statement of wealth. So my host family purchased the green turtle as a symbol of their prosperity, and shared it with many people in their community. Attitudes toward conservation vary hugely from place to place, and convincing people that protecting threatened species is better than poaching them isn’t always an easy task. As conservationists, we have our work cut out for us. 

Follow Ally Stocks on Twitter @Ally_Stocks