Too Late for the Turtle
Each year, more than 165,000 sea turtles are needlessly, heartlessly tortured and killed. Each year, they come closer to the brink of extinction. And what are we doing about it? Leading photographer and environmentalist Michael Aw makes a personal plea.

A long, long time ago, green turtles used to swim freely up to the shores of Bali, where they’d nest before returning to the sea. Then man arrived and hunted the turtles, after which no more of these dignified ancient mariners came to Bali. But these days, the turtles are returning. They arrive on Bali’s southern shore by the boatload, sometimes up to 700 in one day and, like refugees, they’re unloaded into bamboo prisons by the sea. When the tide comes in, they shuffle in the shifting film of sewage and gasoline.

At low tide, they smother in the sand, gasping as they await an impending, painful death.
In one of the holding pens, only a couple of kilometres from Nusa Dua, Bali’s premier tourist belt, more than a hundred battered turtles lie tied up in a praying position, their fore flippers punctured to allow a cord to be strung through them. Bearing marks of appalling torture – open head wounds, torn flippers – incurred both in their capture and in their transportation to this final hell, many do not survive the journey.

Sometimes up to three boats a day arrive on the beach, with turtles stacked eight high on top of each other like crates of vegetables. Those that are still alive will suffer further weeks of dehydration and starvation in a filthy, overcrowded cage. Occasionally, they struggle to lift their feeble heads off the floor, as if to ask, ‘Why?’
Gruesome end: above, from left, turtles with their fore flippers punctured and tied together; empty shells outside a slaughterhouse; turtle meat boiling in a wok; previous spread, a diver watches a baby turtle swimming for its life. All photographs by Michael Aw
Death comes slowly. Scratching his fat belly, a butcher strides into the room. He places a turtle upside down on a stone board next to a wok of water boiling away on a dirty stove. Without killing the creature first, he cuts at the margin of its yellow underside. The turtle’s head retracts with a sudden gasp. The butcher raises the hard belly cover to reveal the internal organs, mustard-coloured muscles and a vivid red heart, still beating. A ladle is jammed into the body to scoop out the blood, which is then packed into plastic bags. In Hinduism, the predominant religion in Bali, the body is seen as just a temporary shell, with the spirit returning time and again in the cycle of rebirth until nirvana is reached. I hope the turtle-butchers return as turtles.

While I’m ‘touring’ the largest-known turtle slaughterhouse, in Tanjung Benoa, Nusa Dua, divemasters at a nearby scuba school are selling trips to a turtle sanctuary. At other times, I’m told, they, too, work as butchers in the slaughterhouse, where 50 turtles, on average, are killed in one day, although 700 a day is not uncommon.

It’s long been a tradition in Bali that turtles are killed for cultural and religious rituals. When an infant is three months old, when a couple gets married, when cremation ashes are scattered – all are occasions that call for the slaughter of turtles. The local government allows 4,000 turtles a year to be killed for these rituals, but research reveals that a quota of just 1,000 would be more than adequate. In reality, the numbers killed go beyond even this excessively generous allowance.

More than 15,000 turtles a year are believed to be slaughtered in Bali, which corresponds neither to traditional practices nor to local laws. Tradition is a poor excuse for allowing such massacres to continue, particularly as, in ancient ceremonies, the turtles were always set free as part of the ritual. Furthermore, as an elderly ‘pedanda’ (Hindu priest) told me, pigs and poultry could actually be used instead of turtles.
But, of course, it’s not all down to religion that so many turtles are being killed. In the past hundred years, turtle meat has become a delicacy not just in Bali but in the whole of South-east Asia. Turtle eggs score high on the list of favourite aphrodisiacs, and turtle shells in the souvenir shops keep the tourists happy.

Appalling as all this may seem, it would be easy to get carried away criticising the beliefs and behaviour of other cultures. First, however, we should look at the part we play in this scenario. The shrimps on the barbie, the prawns in a seafood platter – these are gourmet delicacies that we enjoy in our ‘civilised’ world. But they come to us at the expense of hundreds of thousands of sea turtles’ lives each year. And there is nothing remotely religious in our demands.
One of the major inconveniences for an air-breathing animal living in the sea is that it’s necessary to surface once in a while to breathe. Prawn trawlers indiscriminately casting their nets lay a death trap for sea turtles. Once in the net, they inevitably drown. Experts estimate that more than 150,000 turtles are lost in prawn-trawling nets annually. The turtles are not even consumed – instead the carcasses are thrown overboard to make room for the more lucrative cargo of prawns.


In 1989, a law was passed in the United States requiring all shrimp fishermen to use special attachments on their nets to protect turtles from drowning. These turtle-excluder devices, or TEDs, enable sea turtles to escape the nets safely and all trawlers in the US must now be fitted with them. In a controversial effort to protect sea turtles worldwide, the law also stated that any shrimps brought into the US had to have been caught in a net fitted with TEDs.

Countries such as Australia, Taiwan and Malaysia objected to this and refused to abide by the ruling. They made a claim to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that the sanction was unjust, and that the US should not be allowed to restrict the import of shrimp from their countries. The WTO agreed that the ban was unfair but, thankfully, it has remained in place.

According to Michael Kennedy, the director of the Australian branch of Humane Society International, 10,000 turtles die each year as a result of the Australian prawn-fishing industry. The Australian Seafood Industry Council claims such figures are a gross exaggeration and that mortality rates are probably less than 800 a year – ten times less than the number of turtles killed by the natives of Torres Strait and other northern areas. Seemingly, to them, the loss of 800 turtles is acceptable if it’s less than the Aboriginal catch. (In Australia, all turtles are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975, but Aborigines are still allowed to kill turtles for consumption.) Meanwhile, the average consumer is oblivious of the carnage of sea turtles in the high sea – a story that rarely makes the evening news.

Mankind has been, and continues to be, the single most destructive species on this planet. We have the power to save a species or drive it to extinction. A brief survey of the Red List of Threatened Animals published by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre shows our record of the latter to be impressive: by the year 2000, if no conservation project is undertaken, it is likely that Sumatran and Siberian tigers will no longer exist in the wild; we have already hunted the American bison to near extinction; long before that, we destroyed the dodo.

And now, all species of sea turtles are threatened. In the past 100 years, we have managed to bring to the brink of extinction an animal that has been on this planet for more than 200 million years. We claim to be the champions of all life on earth, but it seems we have no regard for the creatures around us. Extinction is for ever, but it’s not too late to save the life that still exists. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure it out: if we continue to consume all the turtle eggs, to sacrifice about 150,000 adults a year in order to eat prawns, and to allow 15,000 more to die in the slaughterhouses of Bali, the future is bleak for the sea turtle.

Regardless of our individual sentiments about protecting rainforests and saving the world, we cannot deny the link between the survival of the planet and our survival as a species. If we choose to sit idly by, we are, in effect, contributing to the destruction of the only known habitat suited to human life. It’s time we assumed some real and proactive responsibility for the well-being of our world.

• If you would like to protest about the slaughter of green turtles in Bali, write to the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, 38 Grosvenor Square, London W1X 9AD.

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