Known locally as Etheredhoo, the south-western beach of L. Gaadhoo is one of the most significant sea turtle nesting sites in the Maldives. Sea turtles nest primarily on Etheredhoo’s velaa heylhi, a 500m long beach strip. This is also the only nesting site in the country known to have been systematically monitored and managed by the residents of the island.
According to Frazier et al. (1984), Gaadhoo recorded estimates of 240 nests a year in the 1980s. However, anecdotal reports by residents suggest that the number is much larger, maybe as much as 1,400. In 2006, The Ministry of Fisheries identified L. Gaadhoo as one of 14 sea turtle nesting hotspots in the country. A ten year moratorium banning the harvesting of sea turtle eggs from these sites followed. Prior to this, the people of the island acted as the custodians of the beach with their own management system in place.
Ali and Shimal noted in their 2016 study that Gaadhoo’s residents were “known for their remarkable monitoring of the nesting beach.” The islanders conducted regular beach patrols and protected the sea turtles and eggs from being taken by hunters. They spent the income from selective egg harvest and sale on community needs, such as purchasing an electric generator for the island’s powerhouse and constructing a mosque.
In 2006, the ban on harvesting eggs at sea turtle nesting hot spots such as Gaadhoo led to the elimination of financial incentives from sea turtles. As a result, the local beach monitoring system at Gadhoo ceased. Without the local management system, uncontrolled harvest of eggs began along with an increased hunting of sea turtles for meat from Gaadhoo and its surrounding waters. According to Gaadhoo islanders, people from other islands took almost all sea turtle eggs and illegal take became rampant. By 2016, nesting had reportedly declined by at least 40% (Ali & Shimal, 2016).
In 2015, the residents of Gaadhoo were forcibly relocated to L.Fonadhoo due to their small population. In their absence, Gaadhoo continued to be a hot spot not only for sea turtles, but also for illegal take – even when sea turtles were officially listed as protected species in the Maldives in 2016 under the Environment Act (4/93).
Current situation: Nesting in Gaadhoo
ORP began collecting nesting and illegal take data from the island in 2018. Over the years, we have documented an increase in illegal take. Between 2018 and 2022*, we recorded an average of around 64 suspected nests per year on Gaadhoo. An estimated 59.5% of all suspected nests showed signs of illegal take. *These numbers exclude data from 2020 and 2021 due to limited survey efforts during Covid-19 restrictions.
With the decline in nesting caused by illegal take, ORP and the Environmental Protection Agency of Maldives (EPA) initiated discussions about the need to develop a community-led nesting beach monitoring programme on Gaadhoo in 2019. The Maldivian Government finally declared Gaadhoo’s nesting beach and surrounding seagrass meadows as Protected Areas in December 2021. The Government is currently developing a management plan for the area.
However, without the presence of people on the island to deter illegal hunters, 65.56% nests were illegally taken in 2021 (16 out of 23). In 2022, 60.89% nests (42 out of 69) were illegally taken. ORP and the EPA have been working to monitor the nesting beach together with AgroNat – a government subsidy company that leased L. Gaadhoo for agricultural development in 2021. Finally, in 2022, we signed into a partnership to establish a consistent beach monitoring programme on the island with the support of Laamu Atoll Council and Laamu Fonadhoo Council. Thus, the Sea Turtle Beach Guardian Programme was born!
Under this partnership, EPA and ORP are co-supervising a sea turtle ranger & community officer, based in L. Fonadhoo. The sea turtle ranger conducts regular nesting beach surveys to monitor the nesting beaches on L. Gaadhoo and works with the residents of L. Fonadhoo and L. Gan. The project is supported by GEF Small Grants Programme implemented by UNDP Maldives, and Six Senses Laamu. It is part of ORP’s Sea Turtle Beach Guardian Programme for the wider Laamu Atoll.
Introducing the First Sea Turtle Ranger in Maldives
Ibrahim Inaan was born and raised in Laamu Atoll. His interest in marine environment and sea turtles was born when he discovered that sea turtles are endangered. He started his role as the first sea turtle ranger & community officer in the Maldives in January 2023. Since then, he has been engaging with key stakeholders in Fonadhoo and Gan, as well as conducting educational outreach activities, to increase awareness about sea turtles amongst Laamu residents.
In addition, Inaan conducts regular surveys of L. Gaadhoo’s nesting beach. Whilst based in L. Fonadhoo, L. Gaadhoo’s nesting beach is easily accessible to him as Fonadhoo and Gaadhoo are located in the same lagoon. He has conducted 30 surveys so far in 2023 and has collected information on 30 suspected nests. He has only recorded three incidents of illegal take activity on the island. This is a decline from the illegal take rates recorded in the previous year. We aim to continue to deter illegal take through our consistent presence and monitoring on Gaadhoo.
Now known as the “Turtle boy” in the community, residents report any incidents of illegal take and nesting to Inaan. One such incident happened when residents found two illegally taken sea turtles on the island of L. Gan. Upon investigation, Inaan found the sea turtles’ carapace, head, and intestines discarded. He collected evidence, documented the scene, and submitted an incident report to EPA. He also recorded additional data on the sea turtle for ORPs sea turtle Photo-ID database.
We have also started to collect data on hatching success on the island by conducting excavations. ORP’s sea turtle biologist in Laamu, Julian Gervolino, conducted the first excavation on L. Gaadhoo earlier this year. He also trained Inaan to conduct excavations for research purposes. To date, Inaan has conducted five excavations and found an average hatching success of 91.2%. While this is still preliminary data, it is exciting to see such successful nests hatching in Gaadhoo after years of concern about illegal take.
Community-based sea turtle conservation
The Sea Turtle Beach Guardian Programme works closely with residents and organizations in Laamu Atoll, including local government authorities, NGOs and schools. The project was launched during a meeting with stakeholders in January 2023 and incorporates their feedback into the rollout. We are also working on diversifying our education and outreach activities in the atoll with activities that specifically cater to the audiences here. We provide quarterly updates of the project to the stakeholders, and include them in project planning.
The first activity planned is the special celebration of World Sea Turtle Day in L. Fonadhoo, with an event called ‘Velaakahanbuge Haveeru’ or’ Sea Turtle Evening’, co-hosted with with local NGOs and partners. The event aims to raise awareness about sea turtles within the community through interactive and engaging activities for students and the general public; to share information about L. Gaadhoo’s nesting beach and the custodianship of its former residents; and to officially announce the efforts undertaken for Gaadhoo’s nesting beach protection.
Back to the roots: understanding Gaadhoo’s custodianship
As there is very little documentation of the cultural practices of L. Gaadhoo’s residents and their custodianship of the nesting beach, ORP and EPA have initiated a study to better understand the cultural relationship between the former Gaadhoo community and sea turtles, including historical knowledge of sea turtle ecology, and how this has changed over time.
The study aims to:
- Document historical knowledge of sea turtle ecology and how it has changed over time
- Examine the historical procedures or methods, if any, to protect and selectively take adult sea turtles and their eggs.
- Analyze the benefits – commercial, financial, or otherwise – of the eggs laid or turtles hatching on their island
- Investigate cultural associations of sea turtles, including taboos and superstitions.
Another goal of the study is to understand Gaadhoo’s former residents’ expectations and recommendations for managing the protected areas on the island. The findings will help inform the management plan for the area. Gaadhoo’s former residents are also invited to join the efforts for nesting beach protection by working with the EPA and ORP.
The EPA and ORP designed the study with the support of Gaadhoo’s former Council President, Abdul Azeez. He has been advocating for Gaadhoo’s protection and monitoring of the nesting beach for years. Together with Azeez, ORP and the EPA began interviewing previous Gadhoo residents in May 2023, speaking mainly with people who were previously involved with egg harvesting on the island. This includes island chiefs, island office staff, island council members, and women’s development committee members.
The findings from the study will be shared with Laamu Atoll stakeholders, community members, and the Maldivian Government.
A hopeful sign
Historically, L. Gaadhoo set an example for managing and monitoring natural resources locally with the active involvement of the community. With the Sea Turtle Beach Guardian Programme – Laamu Atoll, we are hopeful that community members will once again take an active role in sea turtle conservation in the atoll. In addition, we hope that the project will provide a blueprint for similar initiatives in the future.
Apart from nesting beach surveys, we will also be conducting regular educational sessions in L. Fonadhoo and L. Gan for school students and stakeholders in the upcoming year, in an effort to familiarise everyone with sea turtle biology. The ranger will also coordinate all incidents of illegal take closely with EPA and the police, in an effort to strengthen law enforcement measures under the Protected Species Regulation (R-25/2021). The project will expand in September 2023 to include regular drone surveys on hot spots for illegal take of sea turtles in Laamu Atoll, including L. Gaadhoo’s nesting beach and the islands near Maavah.
We would like to thank our project partners, EPA Maldives, Laamu Atoll Council, Laamu Fonadhoo Council, AgroNat, GEF Small Grants Programme, UNDP Maldives, and Six Senses Laamu for their support in developing and implementing the project. Our warmest thanks to former Gaadhoo Council President Abdul Azeez for his support in sharing local knowledge about Gaadhoo, introducing us to former Gaadhoo residents, and helping to expand community efforts in Laamu Atoll. Finally, we are especially grateful to former Gaadhoo residents for sharing their time, invaluable insights, and ecological knowledge with us.