Czech sea turtle crusader seeks to save species from extinction

Hana Svobodová, photo: archive of Hana Svobodová

Young Czech scientist Hana Svobodová has devoted her entire career to protecting and saving endangered sea turtles. Since 2010, she has been regularly visiting Indonesia to work as a volunteer in turtle conservation centres and later established her own NGO focusing on their protection. Her NGO recently won an important victory, when they succeeded in hunting down a group of sea turtle egg poachers.

Hana Svobodová,  photo: archive of Hana Svobodová
When I met with Hana Svobodová, I asked how she became interested in sea turtles.

“That’s a long story. I’ve had a turtle since I was six. I got it as a present from my parents when I was in primary school. So I looked after it and read about it and I fell in love with turtles. During my studies at the secondary school I went to Mexico as a volunteer. That was my first encounter with seas turtles. I could see that the protection of sea turtles was far from great and I decided I wanted to make it better.

“So I studied at Charles University in Prague and did my master thesis about sea turtles. So that was the beginning. And because I saw that turtles were most endangered in the Indian Ocean, especially in Indonesia, I started to think about how to go to Indonesia and to study the Indonesian language.

“So I spent six months at the University of Sumatra learning the language. This helped me a lot, because now I can communicate with the local people and understand how they live and how they think, which is very important for conservation. You have to be able to speak with the people and motivate them to change their behaviour.”

Lots of the turtle species in Indonesia are actually threatened. Why is that and would you say human activities are the main reason to blame for the situation?

“That’s for sure. Maybe the biggest problem is the fishermen’s nets. The ocean is full of nets and it is important to know that not only fish get caught in them, but also dolphin, whales and sea turtles. Sea turtles are reptiles and they breathe by lungs, so if they stay in the net for a long time, they die.

“You have to be able to speak with the local people and motivate them to change their behaviour.”

“Another reason is egg poaching. This wasn’t such a serious problem in the past, when the locals would take a few eggs for the breakfast. But today, transportation is much faster. The eggs can travel long distance and still stay fresh. We have seen people selling six thousand eggs per week to China and Singapore from Indonesia.

What is also interesting is the fact that turtles lay eggs in the same place where they hatched. If there is a place where all the eggs are stolen from the nests, there won’t be any turtles coming back to the place and the population will die out.”

So why is there such a high demand for sea turtle eggs?

“It’s a traditional meal in the region. A lot of people believe that they are good for their health but it is not true. Sea turtles are long-living animals and the ocean is not really clean, so they accumulate a lot of pollution in their body, so I really wouldn’t recommend eating them.”

But people don’t want just meat and eggs. They also go after the turtle shells….

“That is true. In these islands, which are far away from the mainland, people use turtle shell as a material for making souvenirs. But the way they get the material is very cruel.

“They catch the turtle, put it over the fire and after two hours they take the thin layer off the shell. When it is still hot, they can easily arrange its shape, but the turtle is still alive. So it is really cruel and it has a huge impact on the sea turtle population.”

Many countries including Indonesia adopted laws that should prevent poaching and illegal trade with sea turtles. Would you say these laws are effective?

Photo: Jeremy Bishop,  CC0
“They adopt a law, but the problem is that the Indonesian police are not really enforcing the law. According to Indonesia, a person who is caught stealing or selling turtle eggs should be imprisoned for five years. But nobody is ever caught, so the local people are not afraid. So we also discuss this with the police and politicians, because it is very important.”

You yourself helped to establish a turtle conservancy NGO in Indonesia. What sorts of programmes do you run?

“We are a small local NGO called Konservasi Biota Laut Berau (Conservation of marine life of the Berau region), which is located in Borneo. We are protecting the nesting beaches from poachers and this direct protection of the islands is our main goal.

“What is also important for me is education. I don’t think we can really change the minds of the adults who have been stealing eggs for years, but what we can do is try to speak to the children. And I believe they won’t be doing the same thing as their parents do.

“The last thing we do in Indonesia is work with the local communities to develop their skills. We try to stop them from using turtle shells by finding alternative materials for them. We teach the locals to make souvenirs for example from coconut shells, because are plenty of coconuts everywhere around. So that’s what we do in Indonesia.

“This summer, we will also have some rangers coming from Sri-Lanka to our place to learn how to protect sea turtles effectively, so we are very happy about that.”

“The ocean is full of fishermen’s nets and not only fish get caught in them, but also dolphin, whales and sea turtles.”

Your NGO has recently made headlines, when it helped to crack down on egg poachers in Indonesia. How did that happen?

“It was in March this year. My colleague from the Liberec Zoo was coming to the Berau region. The problem is that there are six islands but we can protect only three of them, because we don’t have money to employ more people. So three of the six islands are still under the pressure of poachers.

“Tomáš and other colleagues and they were waiting on the island with night cameras and when they got pictures of the poachers, they contacted the police and marine army in the Berau region and asked them for help. So the poachers were caught by the Czech team with the help of our team and the Indonesian army.”

Did you take part in the operation?

“Not really. At the time, I was in the Czech Republic. But we would like to do something similar again in the summer, because it is really important. It has been two months since it happened and the person is still in prison. People are still talking about it and they are afraid and we haven’t seen any attacks from the. And all this happened just because we contacted the media as soon as possible.”

Apart from your activities in Indonesia, you also have a project in the Czech Republic raising awareness of sea turtle conservancy. Why do you think it is important to teach young Czechs about this problem?

“Indonesia is far away from the Czech Republic and we don’t have any ocean, but many Czechs go on holidays abroad. I believe that if they know about the situation, they will think more about what they do on their holidays and they will think about whether they really need to buy turtle eggs and meat or jewellery made out of sea turtle shells.”

Photo: archive of Hana Svobodová
What are your plans for the nearest future?

“I am going back to Indonesia at the end of June and I will be there for one and a half months. When I studied biology, I thought I would spend a lot of time in nature, helping animals directly.

“But in conservation, a lot of work is actually about talking to people, raising money and meeting with the police and politicians. For me, the best time is to be in Indonesia, where I can see the turtle and meet them in the ocean or on the beach.”