Of Tortoise and Men

Tortoise conservation
Abdul Shukoor leading the way to the tortoise habitat. Photo: UNDP Maldives 2013.

Abdul Shukoor pushes aside the strap-shaped leaves of the pandanus tree, and his eyes light up in excitement. “Look!” he says with a beaming smile, as he takes in the sight of several tortoise nestled near the muddy base of the tree’s rooted trunk. “They eat the screwpine fruit and sometimes breadfruit too,” he explains to the group of school-goers who have accompanied him to spot the tortoise habitat. One of the boys picks up a baby tortoise and strokes gently along the yellowish-orange patch on its head.

Shukoor is delighted with the interest they are showing in the tortoise. He feels that it is a result of the work that Venture Club - the NGO which he belongs to, based on the island of Kaashidhoo, has been doing to create awareness of this endangered species.

Shukoor takes the group a few steps away, so that the tortoise could freely plod about. He explains how that the tortoise, or Kanzu Kahanmbu as the locals call them, especially the highly polished, ebony shell of the tortoise with beautiful natural markings, have been of much value in the islands of the Maldives since the time of kings. “The shells were made into women’s bracelets and into pretty boxes and caskets set in silver. Kanzu Kahanmbu is the only tortoise we have in the country, but because of such activities that have been going on for a long time, we now sadly have very few tortoises,” he tells them.

Highlights

  • Due to their rapidly dwindling numbers, Maldives has declared the tortoise as endangered and as a protected species
  • While tortoise inhabited seven islands before, now they are found only in three islands
  • Kaashidhoo Island is a farming community. There is pressure to use the tortoise habitat for agriculture
  • NGO Venture Club is creating awareness about protecting the tortoise population on the island of Kaashidhoo, with support from GEF-SGP/UNDP

Due to their rapidly dwindling numbers, Maldives has declared the tortoise as endangered and stated them as a protected species. According to the Environment Protection Agency, while tortoise inhabited seven islands before, now they are found only in three islands; Kaashidhoo in Male Atoll, Mulee in Meemu Atoll and Nellaidhoo in Haa Dhaalu Atoll. But now, under new regulations, it is a crime to keep these species as pets, disturb their nests or destroy their habitats.

 tortoise in its habitat
Tortoise - an endangered species in the Maldives. Photo: UNDP Maldives 2013.

As the group emerges from the woods, Mohamed Farooq is waiting for his grandson who animates his excitement and relays the stories from the day, mainly how the tortoise use their long sharp nails to climb and walk.

Farooq details how even though people are showing more concern for the tortoise, there was a time when islanders collected them to keep them as pets or trade them. “The main issue now would be the threats from agricultural activities. Sometimes you can see burnt shells of the tortoise on these lands. But people have to eat too,” says a wistful Farooq.

 


Farooq with his grandchildren. Photo: UNDP Maldives 2013.

Kaashidhoo is a farming community. Most of the land out of its 227 hectares is used for farming activities. Due to the use of chemicals, the land deteriorates, making farmers wait for long periods for it to be replenished again. As a result, almost all the land has been used up and further, the Government has built a prison on 25 hectares of the land.

“There is pressure to use the tortoise habitat for agriculture. When it comes to livelihoods, farming will win. This is posing a serious threat for this endangered species. Venture Club wants to ensure this habitat remains a protected area when the day comes,” explains Shukoor.


Awareness billboards put up by Venture Club. Photo: Venture Club Kaashidhoo 2013.

Venture Club is creating awareness about protecting the tortoise population on the island of Kaashidhoo, under a project supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme, assisted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“The work that the NGO is doing is important. We want to see sustainability for this project, for the tortoise population to increase and for their habitat to become a conservation area in the future,” said GEF-SGP Coordinator, Fathimath Ghina.

The President of the Island Council of Kaashidhoo, Ali Sulthan agrees that Kaashidhoo is rare and unique in that it is among the few islands in the whole of Maldives with a native endangered species, and realizes how important it is to protect their habitat. “The Council is trying to assist in this work as much as we can. We have provided venues, made announcements for Venture Club, granted permission on land matters, and assisted with clearing the land even,” said Sulthan.

“Our challenge is to balance people’s needs while taking heed of our rich biodiversity,” he added hopefully.