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Ricardo Tapilatu: Falling in love with sea turtles

  • Nani Afrida

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, March 19 2013 | 12:07 pm
Ricardo Tapilatu: Falling in love with sea turtles

Courtesy of Ricardo Tapilatu

People say true love lasts forever. For Ricardo Tapiatu, his true love is the sea turtle, especially the leatherback sea turtle.

This native Papuan is happy spending nights watching turtles laying their eggs on the beach, measuring the size of female turtles or checking their nests. He has been doing these activities for almost twenty years and never found himself getting bored.

“I’ve slept on the beach after working with the turtles all night. I’ve woken up in the morning with the sun shining and the birds singing. It’s a nice experience,” Ricardo, who is a researcher and a Fulbright grantee, told The Jakarta Post recently.

This is not love at the first sight, as Ricardo’s experience with turtles has a long history. Starting when he was a teenager in high school in 1980, he saw many boats come from Jamursba Medi beach to sell sea turtle eggs and meat at Sorong Market in Papua.

Jamursba Medi is located on the Bird’s Head peninsula, West Papua. It’s a place where sea turtles, especially leatherbacks, lay their eggs.

The boats contain hundreds of thousands of turtle eggs and smoked turtle meat. Turtles have been a favorite dish for many people in Papua, but not for Ricardo’s family.

“My mother shopped at Sorong Market but she never bought turtle eggs or meat for her family,” said Ricardo, who was born in Sorong.

As a teenager, Ricardo was curious about what was happening to these poor creatures. He started to ask fishermen about various kinds of turtles and then had a dream to visit Jamursba Medi to meet the turtles personally.

In 1994 Ricardo, who was a student in the agriculture faculty of Cendrawasih University, Jayapura, started his research on turtles in Manokwari. The research served to increase his interest in turtles.

“I didn’t have enough funds to continue my research. For the next five years I had to stop my activities,” the 47-year-old said.

But the lack of finances did not make his love of turtles fade. In 1999, Ricardo studied in Australia and in 2004 he secured some funds that then allowed him to visit Jamursba Medi beach.

It takes five hours to reach Jamursba Medi beach from Sorong. Boats must struggle with high currents during the journey, which sometimes strands them on the beach where the turtles lay their eggs.

Besides high currents, as a researcher Ricardo also had to deal with the wildlife situation along the beach. The forest is still intact and contains insects, birds, fishes, snakes and even crocodiles.

“The important thing is that the inhabitants welcome us to do the research,” said Ricardo, whose
hobbies are diving and traveling.

According to the father of three children, there were more than 10 thousand turtle nests along Jamursba Medi beach in 1980. The limited area of beach has sometimes led female sea turtles to dig into other female turtle’s nests.

The time of nesting lasts from around 4 p.m. until 10 a.m.

Today, it is difficult to find female sea turtles laying their eggs in mornings or afternoons.

“After doing intensive research for a long period, I can say that the number of turtle nests has plummeted drastically,” he said, adding that the number was in line with the number of female turtles that had managed to reach the beach.

Ricardo explained that during the spawning season, every female turtle would return to the beach five to 10 times to lay their eggs. They produce 70 to 100 eggs every time they reach the beach.

He is also aware of the problems facing the turtles. Threats do not only come from humans but also from wild animals and climate change.

“We have to do something. If concrete efforts fail we will lose this creature,” Ricardo said, adding that the female turtles had declined by 6 percent and in the next 20 years, there would be only 100 female sea turtles in Jamursba Medi.

One way of protecting the turtle, for example, is to educate people. The awareness of those living on coast near the spawning area is very low, with many often stealing the eggs to sell or consume them.

“We are trying to work together with the villagers in Jamursba Medi. We teach them how to count the nests and monitor. We also work with neighborhood students and bring them to witness how we work, including when we do night patrols,” Ricardo went on.

Ricardo said that sea turtles played an important ecological role in the sea and on the beach where they laid eggs. The departure of female turtles to lay their eggs on the beach will guarantee the calcium reserve in the area, as their eggshells contain calcium.

He said the leatherbacks are the top predators of jelly-fish.

“Just imagine if there are no leatherbacks. The jelly-fish will spread to this tourist beach and the sea will be covered with them.”

Looking at the bad condition and important role of the sea turtle, Ricardo has a simple dream to improve their lives, particularly leatherbacks, in Indonesia.

“We can’t bring back the times when leatherbacks and other turtles had thousands of nests in Jamursba Medi like in 1980, but we can do some serious integrated efforts like beach management and people education,” said Ricardo, who is now pursuing his doctorate degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in the US.

He is optimistic about meeting his goals because the turtle habitat in the Atlantic and the Caribbean has been improved after massive conservation efforts for the last 20 years.

“As an Indonesian and from all the people here in Bird’s head, we want to say that we can also save the leatherbacks, which are part of the dinosaur family,” said Ricardo.


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