"Madam Sea Turtle" fights hard for marine protection in Nigeria
Published: May 24, 2021 07:53 AM
Oyeronke Adegbile (R) cleans the beach in Lagos, Nigeria, April 27, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

Oyeronke Adegbile (R) cleans the beach in Lagos, Nigeria, April 27, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

People release a sea turtle into the sea in Lagos, Nigeria, May 17, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

People release a sea turtle into the sea in Lagos, Nigeria, May 17, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

Volunteers clean the beach in Lagos, Nigeria, April 27, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

Volunteers clean the beach in Lagos, Nigeria, April 27, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

Oyeronke Adegbile stands by a wooden boat at a beach in Lagos, the biggest coastal city and the economic hub of Nigeria, smiling and listening to several fishermen pouring out their complaints about the hardship of life as they are busy picking fishes off their fishing net.

Adegbile is here on a beach cleaning activity, part of the efforts of a non-governmental organization she founded to promote marine protection in local communities.

The 40-year-old marine researcher with Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR) is widely referred to as "Madam Sea Turtle" by the coastal communities she frequents together with her colleagues because of her seemingly "overzealous" dedication to the protection of sea turtles.

However, the "Madam Sea Turtle" always finds herself caught in the quandary between conservation and survival, and the fight to protect marine life and the tradition and livelihood of a vast majority of people living in coastal communities.

Adegbile did not know there are sea turtles in Nigeria until 2009 when she went for a field trip as a NIOMR researcher in a fishing community in Lekki, a coastal area of Lagos, and saw a sea turtle shell.

Adegbile recalled when she graduated from the University of Lagos in 2002, she traveled for an international conference on marine protection in Britain.

"One of the participants at the conference asked me if there were sea turtles in Nigeria and prior to that time I had never heard of sea turtles being in Nigeria. So, I said we didn't have them and I don't know anything about them," Adegbile told Xinhua.

However, she got back to Nigeria with that question lingering on her mind until her field trip in 2009.

"I was able to establish that we have sea turtles nesting in Lagos. We formed a little group with my colleagues and we started going out to the coastal communities to ask if they have found any sea turtles," she said.

The answer was affirmative.

Later, Adegbile was involved in a sea turtle nesting survey for her PhD research, so she went to coastal communities more frequently to check where they nested.

"I realized that the government vehicle was not moving fast enough for the sea turtle work, so I decided to start a cause around the sea turtle. That was when I started the cause on sea turtle monitoring," she said.

The Hard Fight

To Adegbile's astonishment, sea turtles seem not to have a happy life in the country as they are often regarded as either foods or foes by coastal communities.

"The first time I encountered one in one of the communities, it almost caused a riot because the people said that this was just like a cow to them and what they do after capturing it is to share it among the community," she said.

She was there then on a sea turtle survey together with one of her colleagues. She tried her best to get them to release it but they insisted on collecting 50,000 naira (about 140 U.S. dollars).

"That was way out of my reach. I felt threatened. The young men in the community were hostile towards us. My partner and I had to exit from the community," she said.

Adegbile said local communities believe the sea turtle is meat to them. "They think that you are taking away from them their food without giving them anything in replacement."

The fishermen also have their own personal vendetta with the sea turtles because they do not target the sea turtles deliberately, but the sea turtles enter into their nets as by-catch, Adegbile said.

"The sea turtle is trying to feed on some fish that has aggregated in the net, the net closes up on it, and the turtle is trying to free itself from the net. So, the net is shredded into several pieces," she said.

The fisherman went back and got mad because these nets were costly for them. And they also have a belief that whenever a turtle is the first catch, then it is a bad omen because they know that they would not catch anything else for that day.

"They are determined to keep that turtle to fend for their family because their wives and children are waiting at home for the day's catch," Adegbile said.

Progresses Made

"Madam Sea Turtle" has not been scared away from sea turtle protection by the existent difficulties.

She frequented the coastal communities in Lagos, telling people the sea turtles are endangered, and they are covered by several international and regional conventions.

"I always quote those laws anytime I see them. That was how I got stuck with the name 'Madam Sea Turtle'," she said.

Adegbile teamed up with some like-minded friends to establish in 2013 the Marine and Coastal Conservation Society of Nigeria(MCCS), a non-governmental organization, with the objective of bringing about marine conservation action in the west African country.

One of their activities in the organization includes regular beach clean-up, an important part of the marine protection sensitization campaign through which they find more partners.

"Now, we have a group chat where we notify ourselves when a sea turtle has been spotted so that it can be rescued and released quickly. We use all sorts of tactics to get the sea turtles released," said Adegbile.

So far, MCCS has well over 500 volunteers in Lagos alone.

Isreal Balogun has been working as a volunteer for MCCS at a fishing community in the Ibeju Lekki area of Lagos for three years now. "They enlightened me on the usefulness of sea turtles and their importance to the ocean."

The barkeeper in his 30s told Xinhua that he goes from one community to the other to rescue sea turtles.

"Now they do call me whenever a sea turtle is captured in their communities. I pay them some money and they release the sea turtle to me," Balogun said.

"There are still some who still eat the sea turtle, but the number has reduced unlike how it used to be," he said.

Segun Yahaya, a 58-year-old local fisherman told Xinhua that until he encountered "Madam Sea Turtle" and her team, he never knew that sea turtles, like other marine wildlife, are endangered.

Yahaya does not eat sea turtles because he does not like the smell. And it wasn't a problem for him to stop capturing them, he said, adding sometimes he gets cash compensation for each turtle he releases back into the ocean.

"Not all my fellow fishermen understand the need to preserve the sea turtle," he said, "If we are getting the right assistance from the government we will be more environmentally conscious."

The Way Ahead

As issues around climate change continue to manifest across the world. In Nigeria, rising temperatures are one of its effects. This, Adegbile said, might be deadly for the marine species.

"The temperature that is warming up is affecting the beach sand and also affecting the ocean itself. A lot of species have temperature-dependent reproduction," she said.

For instance, in the case of sea turtles, the hatching of the eggs, when they are laid, depends on temperature. If the temperatures are rising, it means there are fewer hatching successes.

Adegbile said there is a need for more sensitization of the people in the grassroots and the government on the importance of marine protection.

According to local media, Nigeria's Minister of State for Environment Sharon Ikeazor revealed in a statement in September 2020 that the absence of marine protected areas in the most populous African country, with about 853 km coastline, prompted the government to initiate plans for projects to assist in the control of coastal erosion, restoration of polluted areas and protecting marine animals.

Adegbile expects to see a sea turtle sanctuary set up by the government in the near future, as a way to both promote sensitization of marine protection and explore the opportunity in tourism.

"The only challenge we have is funding. We have limited support from here and there, and we are hoping that things would get better because we do have a lot of marine conservation action that we want to do in Nigeria," she said.
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