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Night watchman

Life in Ghana

Allman and his wife, Karyn, arrived in Ada Foah last August. They live in a small house a short walk from the beach. Transitioning from the abundance and convenience of life in America to a simple existence in an isolated African fishing village required some adjustments. Allman says their mornings often begin with a bicycle ride to the village markets to buy the day's food, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, rice and beans. They cook their meals over a gas camp stove, and preparing dinner can easily consume the better part of the afternoon. 

Photos provided Phil AllmanAfter sunset, they travel miles of shoreline to scout for turtles. For the first few months this was done on foot, but in January, an all-terrain vehicle Allman had ordered months earlier finally arrived. This dramatically increases the likelihood of being in the right place at the right time to spot a turtle nesting and creates a greater deterrent to the many poachers who often hunt with impunity along the beach. Slow-moving turtles are easy prey.

Sea turtles spend their lives in the water, but lay their eggs on land. Female turtles drag their bodies to the dry sand above the high-tide line, where they dig a hole, deposit a clutch of eggs, cover them with sand and return to the water. They repeat this process every couple of weeks throughout the nesting season.

Allman has found two species of turtles nesting at Ada Foah: the olive ridley and the leatherback. Olive ridleys are the smallest sea turtles, generally topping out at about 30 inches in length and 100 pounds; leatherbacks are the largest, with an adult measuring about 6 feet long and weighing 1,500 pounds.

Through early April, Allman had tagged 44 olive ridleys and 100 leatherbacks. In all, he spotted 589 nests.

Other researchers were excited to hear that Allman is finding these two species in particular nesting in Ghana. "The leatherback is the turtle of greatest concern right now globally," Owens says. "The olive ridley has been almost totally eradicated in the Atlantic. ... We didn't even know there were olive ridleys in Africa until just a few years ago."

To monitor the health of a sea turtle population and develop a conservation plan for it, two pieces of information are critical: when and where the turtles go throughout the year. For the turtles nesting along the west coast of Africa, the answers to those questions are largely unknown. And finding them is complicated by the fact that sea turtles are great travelers. It's not unusual for a turtle population's feeding and nesting grounds to be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart -- in some cases across an ocean. These long-distance migrations also complicate conservation efforts, which often require forging agreements among multiple governments.

Tagging turtles, as Allman is doing in Ghana, is the least expensive and most widely used method of tracking turtle populations. But it also provides the least return. Its success depends on someone coming across one of the turtles and reporting the number as instructed on the tag. Because turtles spend their lives in water, tagged turtles typically are found only when a female is nesting or when a turtle is caught through fishing or hunting.

The most effective, but also most expensive, way to track turtles throughout their annual migration loop is by satellite. A battery-operated transmitter is glued to a turtle's shell or, for the leatherback, which has no shell, is strapped on like a backpack. The device sends a signal to a satellite, which relays it back to a monitoring station on Earth.

Photos provided by Phil AllmanA team of biologists from the National Environmental Research Institute in Denmark has visited Ada Foah a couple of times since Allman's arrival, and he has helped them attach satellite trackers to leatherbacks and olive ridleys. Allman also is collecting tissue samples from the turtles at Ada Foah. These samples, which are sent to labs for DNA analysis, also may help with plotting migration routes and timing. 

Allman's work is putting Ada Foah on the map as a nesting site for olive ridley and leatherback turtles as well as establishing a foundation for future research.

"Getting good baseline data is going to fill an important gap in our knowledge about leatherback nesting beaches," says David Godfrey, executive director of the Caribbean Conservation Corp. and Sea Turtle Survival League, the world's oldest sea turtle research and conservation organization. "Even a good nesting season's worth of data is going to tell us something about what's going on there, and it may very well provide information that someone needs to put funding in place to create a sustained effort there."

It takes years of research in a region -- to observe if and when the turtles return each year and in what numbers -- to develop a reliable picture and reveal patterns that can help craft a conservation program.

Allman doesn't have that kind of time; he leaves Ghana in late May. With this in mind, he has worked with The Ghana Wildlife Society and a student at the University of Ghana to pick up where he leaves off. He will leave his ATV behind to aid their efforts.

Allman's next stop is Florida Gulf Coast University, where he has accepted a faculty position that should allow him to maintain his involvement in sea turtle conservation in Ghana. 

The importance of conservation, at least for leatherbacks, is a fairly easy sell in Ada Foah because of that turtle's heroic stature in tribal mythology. But even there, the olive ridley doesn't enjoy the same cultural benevolence as its larger cousin.

Clearly, there is still much to be done. But with the groundwork Allman has laid in Ada Foah, generations from now the story of the sea turtles that once rescued the tribe may have a new ending, one in which the people repaid their debt.

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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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