The hidden shame of Bali

Green Turtles are an endangered species yet each year a staggering number are being "legally' slaughtered in the Indonesian island of Bali.

Every day during May to September up to three boats dock in a small fishing port in Bali, Indonesia. Their holds are crammed with turtles whose fore- fins have been bound together; some have already died, most tenaciously cling to life. Strung on poles, they are ferried ashore dangling from their fins to be loaded on to trucks and driven to primitive warehouses to await their fate.

They may have been at sea for months, so starved they gnaw at their fins. They are then dumped in fetid compounds until they are slaughtered in the most gruesome circumstances.

This trade in an endangered species is, up to a point, legal. For religious and cultural reasons the Balinese are allowed to butcher 5,000 turtles a year. But even the most cursory inspection of the trade indicates as many as 100,000 a year are being killed openly in the fishing village of Tanjung Benoa, next to the luxury hotels of Nusa Dua.

Green turtles (Chenolia mydas) have been used for food in Bali for a long time. They used to be served at feasts or temple ceremonies as a delicacy. But with the advent of tourism and the prosperity it brought to the Balinese people, turtle meat has become an everyday dish in the Balinese kitchen. Some of the restaurants catering for tourists are also offering turtle dishes on their menu.

No one polices the quota. Even attempts by the government to justify the killings have stopped. A government-run farm which attempted to raise turtles in captivity to meet the demand for their meat has closed down due to lack of funding.

The authorities also ignore the widespread sale of turtle shells in tourist shops. In Bali and surrounding waters the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is almost extinct. Most of the turtles now come from further afield. There is a whole fleet of boats specialised in the turtle trade. They come from Flores and ply the waters of the Indonesian archipelago as well as neighbouring countries. The mainly Muslim population of Indonesia doesn't eat turtle meat, but for many it is a tempting cash business to sell any turtles they find.

Almost any green turtle being discovered while nesting on an Indonesian beach will be taken into captivity to be sold. Middle-men regularly tour the region to buy turtles. The men pierce the front flippers and tie them together to prevent the turtles from moving around. This also helps to carry them suspended on a bamboo pole. The turtles are left in this position, stacked up in the hull of a boat for the entire journey, which can last up to four months. The boats are big enough to collect as many as three hundred turtles on a trip. The turtles have to endure this ordeal without food. A bucket of water splashed over the carapace to prevent it from drying out is the only relief they get from time to time. Some turtles have parts of their fins nibbled away by hungry fellow creatures by the time they get to Bali. Turtles that don't survive the trip because they get squashed by other turtles piled up on top of them will get thrown overboard.

Turtles are still nesting all year round in Indonesia, with certain peak seasons which are reflected in the number of arrivals at Bali. Between May and September up to three boats a day arrive at Tanjung Benoa. They are met by smaller boats to unload the turtles and bring them to the beach. They are then carried with a bamboo pole between their tied flippers to a place near the beach to wait for their buyers.

Some of the turtles are so heavy that they have to be carried by four people. It must be immensely painful for the turtles to have their whole weight, which can reach up to 250kg, suspended on their front flippers. About 25 per cent of the turtles arriving are male. This indicates that turtles are also caught with nets, because only females come ashore for nesting. Some of the turtles which are not sold immediately will be held in large bamboo cages on the beach. There are about eight of them in Tanjung Benoa, holding several hundred turtles. When the tide comes in they will be flooded knee-deep with dirty harbour water. The turtles, with their front flippers still tied, will now swim for several weeks in a sea of plastic bags. Their only source of food is an occasional piece of seaweed washed in with the tide.

The larger part of the newly-arrived turtles will be brought to the slaughterhouses and restaurants straight away. What now begins is the culmination of their torture and has to be seen to be believed. It is virtually impossible to kill a turtle quickly and painlessly. It doesn't compare to the slaughter of any other animal. This is due to the fact that the blood and tissue of a turtle is able to store oxygen for a long time, so that all the vital body functions are still working even when the turtle has been cut into a hundred pieces.

The butcher starts his work by cutting off the front flippers while the turtle is lying on its back. The turtle will shake its head in agony without being able to emit a sound that can be heard by humans. He will then cut the carapace open and take the bottom part off. It is now possible to see the innards pulsating in the carapace, which is holding them now like a bowl. The rear flippers and the head are still moving helplessly. All the vital organs will now be taken out one by one. Finally the carapace is empty - but the turtle is still moving. There is a last outburst of resistance when the butcher eventually breaks the neck. The rear flippers keep moving even after the head has been severed. All the parts of the turtle, including the heart, are now spread over the floor where they will keep pulsating and quivering for another two to three hours.

The different parts of the turtles will now be used for different dishes. The eggs will be taken out if it is a female turtle that still had eggs within the body. Turtle eggs have become rare in Bali because there are no more turtles nesting there. The meat will be turned into 'satay', little meat skewers, or turtle soup. Even the carapace will be eaten. After boiling it in water it takes on a consistency similar to that of coconut meat. It will then be ground and added to a salad called 'lawar'.

All species of marine turtles are endangered and listed under Appendix 1 of the CITES agreement. Under this international treaty, which Indonesia signed in 1979, any sale or export of animals or plants classified as endangered is prohibited. But there are reports that Indonesia is also violating international law by exporting a certain amount of live turtles to Hong Kong and other east Asian countries.

For more than two hundred million years our oceans have been populated by these friendly creatures. The merciless over-exploitation of the marine turtles in Indonesia as a luxury food item must accelerate their disappearance in the region and could lead to a total extinction.

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