New approach to researching exploitation of endangered species

Community members along Madagascar’s remote south-western coastline have been employed and trained by scientists to document the number of marine turtles illegally caught by local fishermen.

A new approach to monitoring exploitation revealed up to 16,000 endangered turtles are being caught each year in southern Madagascar.

The team of scientists from Blue Ventures Conservation and the University of Exeter’s, Centre for Ecology and Conservation took a novel approach to try and establish the size of the annual turtle harvest.

The research is published this month in the journal Animal Conservation.

New approach

Indigenous communities can have a significant impact on marine wildlife populations and often live in remote areas, making it difficult and expensive to monitor fishing harvests.  To combat this, scientists have enlisted local community members to document the number of turtles caught each year in 12 Madagascan coastal villages.

With a total cost of US$3000 for one year’s monitoring, scientists believe this approach can provide a cost-effective alternative to conventional population monitoring strategies.

Community members were provided with equipment to document and measure turtles, including digital cameras to verify all records. After training, a monthly salary of US$8 was provided for data collectors to supplement their normal income.

Turtle harvest

A total of 699 turtle catches were recorded along the south-western coastline of Madagascar. By looking at the number of turtles caught per kilometre scientists estimated somewhere in the region of 10,000-16,000 marine turtles are caught each year in the Toliara region of southern Madagascar.

Four different species of turtle were recorded, all of which feature on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

Frances Humber from Blue Ventures Conservation said, “We’d expect similar harvests in many countries in the tropical coastal developing world, so this isn’t an isolated issue, but clearly it is a cause for concern when dealing with endangered species.”

The next step

A presidential decree in 2006 made it illegal to harvest any turtle species in Madagascar. A lack of enforcement, however, means turtle fishing continues unchecked.

“Clearly making turtle fishing illegal hasn’t worked, so we need to work with the communities to promote sustainable practices,” said Humber.

The team of scientists believe the use of community members to record catches represents a new system of data collection that can be used elsewhere and will help to answer important question in conservation research.

Humber said, “It’s possible the model for this study could be used elsewhere to get a better idea of numbers,” and “this study is a great way of involving communities in the process of finding a sustainable way forward.”

The detailed report can be found here.

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