Cape Verde's Fragile Paradise on the Brink

Loggerhead turtles flock to Cape Verde's quiet, white beaches to lay their eggs but the tranquillity that draws them may be under threat as the West African islands try to lure more sun-seekers.

BOA VISTA, Cape Verde — Loggerhead turtles flock to Cape Verde's quiet, white beaches to lay their eggs but the tranquillity that draws them may be under threat as the West African islands try to lure more sun-seekers.

Environmentalists warn that plans to boost tourism on the volcanic isles off Africa's Atlantic coast do not take account of the need to protect fragile species, like the turtles who nest on the shores of Boa Vista island each year.

Around midnight on Ervatao beach, scores of tiny loggerhead hatchlings break through the sand after days of digging and begin a madcap dash under cover of darkness towards the waves.

Clambering over the feet of Spanish research students to reach the surf, the tiny turtles will swim for 24 to 48 hours.

"This is known as the swimming frenzy where the young turtles try to reach deep waters as quickly as possible to escape the predators around them," said marine biologist Ana Liria, from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.


But the greatest risk to the turtles -- and other indigenous species -- may be from the islands' tourist industry.

In a report called "Paradise on the Brink," the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said plans to increase tourist arrivals on Boa Vista to as many as 1 million a year were not supported by coherent environmental studies or infrastructure projects.

"Cape Verde's biodiversity is of global importance as it includes many endemic species of plants, birds, insects as well as marine species," the report said.

Cape Verde's coral reefs are among the world's most important and most threatened, and the islands' waters are also a feeding ground for humpback whales, WWF said in its report.


Portuguese sailors discovered them in 1456.

The arid Cape Verde isles, some 300 miles from the coast of Senegal, were uninhabited when Portuguese sailors discovered them in 1456.

The archipelago became a major center for the slave trade and later, the parched soils encouraged a diaspora. Today, the islands' 500,000 inhabitants are outnumbered by Cape Verdeans living overseas, mainly in the United States.

A model state for international donors since independence in 1975, Cape Verde began privatizing its economy in the 1980s.

Since 2000, growth has topped 4 percent a year but problems persist: unemployment stands at 16 percent and international officials say crack cocaine consumption is rising as South American traffickers use Cape Verde as a route into Europe.

In the early 1990s, the government decided to go for tourism growth to boost the economy. In the last decade, visitors increased seven-fold to more than 180,000 a year. The government aims to increase by five the number of hotel rooms by 2012.

Environmentalists are worried about the effect the planned developments will have on the island's rich marine life.

Around 3,000 loggerhead turtles nest annually in Boa Vista and the neighboring isle of Sal, making these areas the second most important nesting site in the Atlantic Ocean.

The turtles swim from as far away as Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau before excavating a shallow nest on the beach with their rear flippers to lay around 100 eggs.

"It is a very important responsibility for Cape Verde's government to conserve a species along the whole of Africa's Atlantic coast," said Luis Felipe Lopez, zoology professor at Las Palmas university.

The government has named 47 protected areas but opposition politicians and ecologists say planning is haphazard and major resorts are being approved without proper environmental reviews.

Mammoth resorts have already sprung up on Sal and the government is targeting Boa Vista for development, hoping to draw foreign investors with hefty tax breaks.

"Sal started to grow in a rapid and spontaneous way ... It was our first tourism center and we do not want to repeat the same mistakes," said Filomena Ribeiro, head of tourism development on the islands.

"Now we are aware that it is necessary to control, to plan ... We would like all our tourists to be eco-tourists."


One development that has raised concern is the Global Project to build a major marina and tourist village catering for up to 15,000 visitors in a protected marine area on Sal island.

"We are a country with a fragile eco-system and we have to reconcile that with sustainable eco-tourism," said opposition politician Luisa Fortes.

Tourists aside, authorities also have to persuade residents, who have an average annual income of around $1,800, that protecting the environment and marine life is worthwhile.

"There are people here without work. Sometimes, to survive, they cannot help but kill a turtle. They have children to feed at home," said Mario Lima, a young man in the town of Joao Galego on Boa Vista, seeking shade from the midday sun.

Other residents resent efforts to save the turtles.

"The turtles will never disappear. There are lots of them every year," said Ricardo Pontes, crossing the island's arid rock-strewn interior on his donkey.

To change attitudes, the Las Palmas university research project has launched a "turtle day" to educate local children.

"There is a conflict with the local population in the sense that they have always used the turtle as a source of food," said Lopez. "As time passes, the population will slowly start to realize a live turtle is worth more money than a dead one."

Source: Reuters