Tackle poverty, then let’s talk conservation

A great lover of turtles and dugongs, Dr. Nick Pilcher, shares his own brand of pragmatic wildlife management
By Smriti Daniel

In late 2010, Dr. Nick Pilcher found himself in the unenviable position of being caught between Tata and Greenpeace as they waged war. One wanted to build a port in the Indian state of Orissa, the other was running a passionate campaign dedicated to stopping construction in the area because they believed it would threaten the existence of the Olive Ridley Turtles that lived and nested there.

Dr. Pilcher was asked for an opinion. He was particularly well qualified to give it for as the Co-Chair of the Marine Turtle Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Founder and Director of the Marine Research Foundation, a private NGO based in Sabah, Malaysia, he had worked on marine research projects in several countries spanning the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Nick Pilcher

“I looked at it, and I thought yes, there could be some impacts but nothing we couldn’t deal with, nothing we couldn’t turn around,” he says, explaining that “at the time the two most pressing issues were that they were going to dredge 63 million cubic metres of sediment to create a big channel for the ships to come in and a lot of turtles lived in that area. The worry was they would get sucked up by these dredgers and that they would perish.

The other immediate problem was lighting. Adult turtles don’t like to nest on a bright beach and baby turtles use light to find the ocean. So if you have a big huge port behind them they’re going to turn back towards the port instead of going out to the ocean.” Having identified the problem, Dr. Pilcher set about finding solutions. Collaborating with engineers, they designed giant deflectors that would protect the turtles from the machine’s pull, allowing the channel to be dug without endangering them.

“What we did with the port itself, before they even laid the first brick, we were guiding them on what light units to instal and where to instal them, so that today if you drive up to the port you have to get to within about three km before you even see it at night.” The result is what he likes to call it a totally turtle friendly port. Dr. Pilcher believes it’s worth going to such lengths because he thinks that animal conservation and human development needn’t always be in conflict.

In Orissa for instance, a state with high incidence of poverty, he doesn’t believe it’s quite fair to say to someone “’No, sorry, you have turtles, you have to be poor for the rest of your life.’ How can you say that?”
Dr. Pilcher has become very well known in recent years for his work with sea turtles and dugongs. He sees remarkable similarities between the two, in fact, he describes dugongs as ‘mammal versions of sea turtles.’

After many dives in close proximity to these creatures, Dr. Pilcher has developed an unabashed fondness for dugongs. While attempting to get a transistor on these large, heavy animals he remembers being “flapped around like a sail.” The process would take several minutes and all the while the scientists were holding on to this “incredible, incredible being,” he remembers. “In many ways they’re human and yet they’re so alien, they’re fascinating,” he says. Today, dugongs are threatened not just by direct hunting but are also killed as catch.

Dr. Pilcher’s approach to conservation is a pragmatic one and could be very relevant to Sri Lanka. An eminent British marine biologist, he is also the lead technical advisor on an Arabian Gulf-wide turtle research and conservation project involving Qatar, Iran, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Though based in Malaysia, he was invited to deliver a lecture in Sri Lanka by Dilmah as part of their marine conservation programme. The company has expressed interest in helping local communities explore sustainable tourism and intend to undertake a Dugong survey.

Their approach appears to be in keeping with Dr. Pilcher’s own unusual philosophy. “I started out in life as a scientist,” he says, explaining that soon pure science went out the window for him. He saw no sense in confining himself to research alone when the animals he was studying wouldn’t even be around in a few years. “The gap between knowing that and using that knowledge to do something about saving them is something that many scientists have missed and I’m hoping that I’m not one of them,” he says.

However he goes one, perhaps controversial, step further. Dr. Pilcher says he’s becoming increasingly convinced that conservation agencies must look at meeting the basic needs of the humans involved in animal-people conflicts. “The one question that many conservation agencies are a bit afraid to ask, is what would it take to make you change your behaviour?” he says. Citing things like the illegal hunting of Dugongs and the collection of turtle eggs, he asks “What drives the family to do these things? Is it the easy way out? Is it the only way out? What issues of human development aren’t we looking at?”

He believes the solution, more often than not, can be found in the answers to those questions. “In most cases the biggest driver is poverty. Someone is not going to be concerned about conserving a species if they can’t feed their families. Those things come first, those basic human necessities come first. Once these things are made available to people, other things can take a higher priority.” In his experience, the smallest things can tip the scale. He cites micro-finance schemes that make money available to fishermen who need simple things like a new sail or outboard motor that would conceivably free them from having to hunt dugongs to keep their families fed.

“We keep on thinking that conservation is about the species, but wildlife management is an impossible thing in many ways,” he says. One cannot convince a turtle to change when and where it lays its eggs, nor ask a dugong to live elsewhere, but people are altogether different beasts, capable of great, voluntary adaptations. “When I started out, I knew a great deal about turtles, but as time goes by, I think I’m learning more and more about humans and it’s people that need to change,” says Dr. Pilcher.

Sri Lanka signs MOU on dugong conservation

Sri Lanka became a signatory to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and Their Habitats throughout their Range (Dugong MOU) on January 31, 2012. The Dugong MOU operates under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The Secretariat to the Dugong MOU is funded and hosted by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi on behalf of the Government of the United Arab Emirates.

The UNEP/CMS Office - Abu Dhabi is currently working with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, IUCN Sri Lanka and Dilmah Conservation to implement preliminary work on conserving the dugong. This will include the conducting of surveys to gather knowledge on dugong distribution, abundance, and their ‘hotspots’ and main threats particularly from incidental captures by net fisheries.

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