The Cape Verdean national military offers its support to SOS Tartarugas and patrols the beaches at night to protect the nesting turtles from poachers. This means that during nightly patrols you sometimes meet a military fireteam on the beach. Most often, the unit will just stay in one spot and stay there throughout the night. Other times they will patrol with you in the hope of seeing turtles. And occasionally they show a real interest in your work and want to help.
One night I found a turtle nest that had to be relocated. Unfortunately I had just missed the nesting turtle so I did not see her. I started to dig for the eggs and this raised the curiosity of two military soldiers that were nearby. They watched me dig with interest and when I started to extract the eggs from the egg chamber they looked very surprised and left in haste only to come back moments later armed with their AK-47 assault riffles. They seemed to take the protection of the turtle eggs very seriously and stood sentinel over me!
When I was done removing the eggs from the nest I carried them down the beach to a good location to rebury them. Both soldiers followed me, guarding me and the turtle eggs. I had my own personal military escort! When I was done relocating the eggs they both saluted me and marched off. I then carried on with my patrol. It makes me very happy to know that some people take the preservation of their natural heritage very seriously.
One of the rules of SOS Tartarugas is “Never leave a turtle alone”. The reason for this is that you want to make sure the turtle nests safely and returns to the sea safely. If you leave a turtle alone, she may be taken by poachers who are waiting for such an opportunity.
Poachers occasionally try to take turtles from a beach that is patrolled by SOS Tartarugas rangers. If they see a turtle while the rangers are patrolling a different part of the beach they will come out from behind the dunes where they were hiding, go to the turtle, and take her behind the dunes. They try to do this before the patrol comes back. Fortunately the rangers can usually tell what has happened when they return as they will see turtle tracks going up the beach, find no turtle, but discover a drag mark (if the turtle was flipped on her back and dragged) or deep footprints (if the turtle was carried) instead. By following the clues and catching up with the poachers they can then save the turtle.
Luckily, poachers are non-confrontational and will usually run away if you see them. They know that what they are doing is against the law and that we have the support of the national police and of the military.
Before SOS Tartarugas was established in 2008, the dunes around the island were littered with dead turtle shells and remains. Dozens, if not hundreds of turtles must have been killed every nesting season. Now, thanks to the combined efforts of SOS Tartarugas and the Cape Verdean military, all of the main nesting beaches of Sal are patrolled nightly and this makes it increasingly difficult for poachers to take turtles. So far this year, the number of turtles successfully taken by poachers on patrolled beaches is only six. This remarkable diminution of the number of turtles killed on Sal is a credit to the hard work the rangers carry out night after night throughout the entire nesting season.