Monday, 21 April 2014

The Case of the Green Turtle. An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon by Alison Rieser

I was intrigued by the title of his book. What had been ‘censored’ that could now be revealed was my first question. Even after wading through 338 pages of pretty turgid prose I still do not know. That was my first disappointment.

I also knew well or had met a number of the protagonists in the farming vs total protection debate of the 1970s that forms a substantial part of this book (Amo, Parkes, Brongersma and Bob Bustard) and was intrigued to see what had been written about them.

The early chapters are the most informative because they indicate the size of the problem brought about by commercial turtling, especially in the USA, the Caribbean and Central America and the urgency of national and international conservation measures to decrease the killing of adults and the removal of eggs for human consumption from nesting sites. However, the book soon drops into a dry as dust description of the conferences and legal processes (with emphasis on the USA) by which the Green Turtle came to be protected, nationally and internationally. The wars, between those who really believed that turtle farming would be the eventual answer to meeting the demand from consumers of turtle products (soup, meat and leather) while reducing the pressure on wild populations and those who also really believed that total protection by prohibiting imports was the only way to preserve the species, form a significant part of the book. Unfortunately, the accounts of meetings and discussions between these groups and individuals, to my mind, are written so blandly that they fail to capture the ding-dong battles that were going on. With its concentration on blow-by-blow accounts of legal procedures in the USA (perhaps therein lies its intended readership) the cynical may be forgiven for getting the impression that any potential for wealth creation from the populations of turtles was transferred from turtlers, would-be farmers and local consumers to Washington lawyers.

The book ends suddenly around 1980. Essentially the farming protagonists were defeated by the US import ban. A two-page epilogue, entitled Supply and Demand brings matters up to date in relation to what happened to the Cayman Island farm, to those in the Torres Strait and to some of the IUCN formal procedures. And that is where this book really falls down. The question is simple: have the international measures that were argued over and enacted been effective in conserving green turtle populations? Evidence and opinion would have been welcome. However, I see that IUCN has not updated its assessment beyond 2004 and so the author would have been on her own in trying to find out. This is the 2004 IUCN view:
As a result of these designations and agreements, many of the intentional impacts directed at sea turtles have been lessened: harvest of eggs and adults has been slowed at several nesting areas through nesting beach conservation efforts and an increasing number of community-based initiatives are in place to slow the take of turtles in foraging areas. In regard to incidental take, the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices has proved to be beneficial in some areas, primarily in the United States and South and Central America (National Research Council 1990). However, despite these advances, human impacts continue throughout the world. The lack of effective monitoring in pelagic and near-shore fisheries operations still allows substantial direct and indirect mortality, and the uncontrolled development of coastal and marine habitats threatens to destroy the supporting ecosystems of long-lived green turtles.
In some places, Green Turtles appear plentiful, the Galapagos, for example, where strict protection measures for everything are in force. The last I saw was off the southern tip of Sri Lanka in November diving as the boat approached. However, turtles are clearly and openly being exploited, often illegally, in some key areas. We saw turtle eggs for sale in the Sandakan market in Sabah, which I still call North Borneo. I see from the online editions of the local papers that the eggs are thought to be brought in by boat from the nearby Philippines and that efforts are being made to stamp the trade out.

Many of the protagonists involved in the 1970s were alive when this book was written. It would have been interesting and, I would argue, only fair to have asked them for their views as to whether they would take the same view now as they did then and whether they think the measures taken then have actually worked. A what-happened-next to the scientific programme of the Cayman farm would also have been interesting, resulting as it did in a complete breakdown in relations between Amo and Parkes, as recounted in Roger Short’s perceptive biographical memoir of Amo.

It is only fair to also ask me if I can remember what I thought then, with Amo around most days for coffee and tea or a chat in the lab (although he was strangely reticent on what was happening in the Caymans). I also heard Parkes give a couple of talks. I think I thought, along with a number of others, that the Cayman Islands team had done a good job in breeding the Green Turtle in captivity at a time when only a few species of reptile had been bred and in studying the reproductive physiology. That convinced many of us that captive breeding could succeed if needed as an emergency measure, even if the facilities needed would be both extensive and expensive.

On the key economic question of whether the farming of turtles would decrease demand from the wild or simply increase it if turtle products were to become more popular to consumers in Europe and North America, I think I was unconvinced then as I am now. In this respect, it would be interesting to know whether the farming of freshwater chelonians (‘turtles’ to Americans and ‘terrapins’ to Brits) in China, which is now said to be on a vast scale, is reducing the pressure on wild populations.

Killing the supply to the USA and Europe for turtle soup and turtle meat by prohibiting imports may well have had an effect in reducing global demand and the consumer desirability of all turtle products. But in the 1970s turtles were not the charismatic creatures that turned them into the conservation icons they are now. Television wildlife programmes must have helped but can you imagine trying to serve turtle soup or meat to those fed a television and toy marketing diet of Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s.

Perhaps, then, the most telling statement is hidden in the endnotes of Rieser’s book. Archie Carr 1909-1987), the doyen of turtle biology and conservation, had originally proposed commercial farming as a conservation measure but had then turned against it:
Peter Pritchard…reported that Carr had in fact been less than friendly to former associates who condoned the killing of sea turtles…Pritchard acknowledged that Carr “was quite frank about his emotional attachment to his creatures when questioned by a newspaper reporter a month before he died in 1987: ‘I just like the look on their faces’ he replied. Pritchard believes that as Carr grew older, his emotional attachment caused him to give up eating turtle meat and opposed turtle farming. Carr simple “could not abide their killing for any reason, and broke off relationships with those who felt otherwise.”


Rieser, A. 2012. The Case of the Green Turtle. An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-1-4214-0579-7
Polge, C. 2006. Sir Alan Sterling Parkes. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 52, 263-283
Short, R.V. 1985. Emmanuel Ciprian Amoroso. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 31, 3-30