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Dedicating their life to turtle conservation

feature melissa main green turtles predominantly hatch on the west coast of the island (david hands)
Loggerhead turtles predominantly hatch on the west coast of the island (David Hands)

My daughter’s name is Lara. Lara is also a place where I created some of my fondest childhood memories. Within those memories, are tiny little creatures scrambling to make it to the sea after they emerge from a deep nest in the golden sand of Lara Bay. It’s where as a child I was taught about the uniqueness of these little turtles, how Lara Bay hosts the rare Green Turtle, and how the environment we found ourselves in, notably the Akamas, was an unparalleled haven of nature in the Mediterranean.

Aside my mother who used to drive me there, was a group of people I could count on my fingers. The name Simon remained drilled in my mind as a tall, skinny looking man that protected the turtles with his life, along with his white long-wheeled base Landrover and a keen eye for the turtles that made the bay the place where they start their life’s journey.

At the time, it was unfathomable to me that turtles hatched at Lara bay would eventually return to lay their eggs in the exact same place. Crossing wide seas and unforeseeable dangers, they travelled with an awe-inspiring internal compass.

feature melissa a hatchling on its path to the sea (david hands)
A hatchling on its path to the sea (David Hands)

Growing up, I encountered more people who protected the turtle and the environment as a whole, notably the Cyprus Wildlife Society. Foremost amongst them was Simon Demetropoulos’ father, Andreas, who started the Cyprus Turtle Conservation Project as former director of the Fisheries Department as far back as 1978.

Fast forward a number of Christmases and I find myself sitting at the same table as Simon with his partner, Angela Mastrogiacomo, who I very quickly realised was equally as invested in Simon’s work.

And the pair are currently finalising this year’s data analysis for MedTRACS (Mediterranean Turtle Research and Conservation Society).

MedTRACS is a new NGO established in 2022 but the people working in it have years – decades – of experience in marine turtle biology and conservation. MedTRACS is currently implementing the Cyprus Turtle Conservation and Research Programme for the Department of Fisheries and Marine Research, the authority responsible for the project. The work of their team has increased in volume and diversity of tasks over time and includes former official of the Fisheries Department Andreas Pistentis and local communities through a recently established collaboration with the Polis Chrysochou Youth Association.

“Aside from the conservation, we’re doing a lot more research-oriented work,” says Simon. “But our main work in the field is to patrol the nesting beaches to locate and protect the nests, to monitor them to make sure they’re okay throughout the entire season in all areas of Cyprus that are under the control of the republic.”

He says most of the nesting happens on the west coast of Akamas and in Polis Chrysochou Bay but the group also monitor other areas such as Larnaca and Pyrgos.

“We patrol the beaches daily to monitor the nesting and the hatching activity while at the same time we sensitise the public on turtle conservation,” says Angela.

“We monitor strandings of dead or injured turtles and we identify and monitor natural (essentially predation by foxes) and anthropogenic threats (human disturbance, both intentional and unintentional as well as problems related to human activities which include light pollution.”

The group puts into place appropriate conservation actions necessary to counteract these threats with short and long term objectives.

Notably, the number of nests recorded this year is high, with over 2,300 nests for both species of marine turtles that lay their eggs in Cyprus: the green turtle Chelonia mydas and the loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta.

feature meilissa simon and angela patrol the island’s beaches to make sure turtles nests are safe (david hands)
Simon and Angela patrol the island’s beaches to make sure turtles nests are safe (David Hands)

“Over the years we keep breaking the record, which is good news,” says Simon, yet he’s also quick to alert that high nest numbers aren’t necessarily something that can be relied on for the future of turtles on the island.

Angela pinpoints that the major threat turtles face in Cyprus is the loss and the degradation of breeding habitats related to human activities.

“This includes development, erosion, light pollution and increased human presence mostly due to tourism,” she says.

But what’s more important perhaps is that the large numbers of nests that we see now are the result of conservation efforts and how the nesting beaches were 20-30 years ago. Nowadays, we are seeing turtles that are returning to lay their eggs some 20-30 years later. Turtles need 15 to 30 years to become adults and return to where they hatched to lay their own eggs. I understand that the increase in nests we are witnessing today is because of the conservation efforts made when I was a little girl. Simon also highlights that even though we are seeing more nests, they’re becoming more constricted to certain areas in some cases.

In the long run, both of them are unsure of what this means, whether there will be a decrease in population, whether it will stay stable or continue increasing. “We will have to wait 20 years to find that out,” says Angela.

And so, with the increased traffic in the area, road works and development of the coastline in general, turtles are under pressure when they try to return to the beaches where they hatched.

And even though the number of nests has increased, “we have to put these numbers into perspective,” says Angela. “For example for the green turtle we had over 300 nests this year, mainly on the west coast of Akamas. This does not mean that we had 300 nesting females.”

In fact female turtles don’t lay every year but every two to three years and lay on average three to four clutches per nesting season. Turtles start laying from May and end laying in mid August, while hatching starts on average seven weeks later (July to end of September/beginning of October).

“So if this year we had 300 green turtle nests we can roughly estimate that 100 or fewer nesting females laid their eggs in Cyprus during this nesting season. If you think about how big the Mediterranean is and how many threats turtles face, not just on land but also at sea during their long distance migrations it’s not a big number,” says Angela.

Simon has been protecting turtles for 45 years and in that time the coast of Cyprus has changed dramatically.

Marine turtle nesting beaches should be protected, and in Cyprus, most of them are, both in Lara and the Toxeftra area on the west coast of Akamas as well as in Polis Chrysochou bay where most of the nesting areas fall within the Natura 2000 network.

“As for the Akamas peninsula it should be protected, not just for the turtles, it should be protected simply because it’s Akamas,” says Simon.

feature melissa simon opens up turtle nests in order to collect data (david hands)
Simon opens up turtle nests in order to collect data (David Hands)

Turtles are called umbrella species, he explains.

“In order to protect the turtles, you protect habitats such as sand dunes and by protecting the sand dunes you protect all the plants and animals that live on the sand dunes and so on. All nesting areas in Cyprus are facing problems of too much development, traffic, trampling, erosion and extension of roads and/or facilities that accommodate the thousands of people going to the area on a daily basis during the summer.”

Ideally then, it would be for the nesting areas to have controlled access to humans to be sustainable in the long term. “People should have the right to enjoy it and this can be done in a controlled fashion while making sure that whoever visits won’t leave any negative impact or just a minimal impact,” says Simon.

I’m reminded of all the years I have witnessed their dedication, and I readily acknowledge their drive. After all, they are the ones who have sensitised me all along.

“The reason why this project is so successful is because it was and is run by dedicated people and scientists who care, because it is personal for them. I came to Cyprus for the first time 15 years ago and I saw this, and fell in love with the Cyprus Turtle Programme and the people involved in it,” Angela says. “And they didn’t do it for themselves, they did it because it was their mission and they believed in this. These people inspired me, and this is what we’re continuing to do.”

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