Conserving Piku the pig-nosed turtle

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday 24th Febuary 2012

AN exciting new project funded by Esso Highlands, the operator of the PNG LNG project, is playing a major role in the conservation of a unique native habitat in the Kikori and Omati River basin of Gulf province. 
These rivers are home to a very unusual animal, the pig-nosed turtle. It is a large turtle of particular interest to scientists because it is the last remaining species of a once widespread family of turtles.
The turtle is distinct due to its pig snout-like nose, hence the name.
“It is so different, with no close relatives,” says project leader Dr Carla Eisemberg. “It is like the platypus of the turtle world”.
The pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) is found in the southern rivers of the island of New Guinea (PNG and West Papua) and the main rivers of the Northern Territory of Australia.
Local people of the Kikori delta have long thrived on the meat and eggs of the pig-nosed turtle, or Piku as it is known in the local dialect.
“The turtle is prized for its meat and eggs which are harvested from about August to February wherever it is found,” says Yolarnie Amepou, a student from the PNG Institute of Biological Research, based in Goroka. “The eggs are particularly valued, can be eaten raw or boiled and used in cooking a variety of dishes”.
Levels of harvest have increased during past decades, and recent work by Eisemberg and her team
have shown that there are fewer turtles today than there once were.
“It is a matter of striking a balance — allowing harvest of turtles to continue, but at levels that do not threaten the turtle populations in the long term,” Eisemberg says. 
Both the scientific world community and local communities want to see these turtles conserved. Papua New Guinea has a role to play in this, one that is made that much more important by the unsustainable levels of harvest in neighbouring Indonesian Papua, to feed the growing international trade in turtles and turtle products.
“We compared harvest numbers from the 1980s to today in village and market surveys in Kikori and Omati areas, and there is clear evidence of a dramatic decline in turtle numbers,” says Eisemberg. “Turtle sizes decreased also, a strong indicator of harvest pressure.”
“The community is beginning to realise that current levels of harvest are not sustainable, and if some form of action is not taken now, the turtles may not be available for future generations.”
With the support of the PNG LNG Project, Eisemberg and her team are working with the local community to address this issue.
“Community awareness is a big part of our work, and we are working with the schools to help teachers to get students interested in the conservation of their environment. The pig-nosed turtle is a great example, and with the help of the PNG LNG project we have produced a children’s book for distribution to all students in the region.”
A series of radio plays have been developed from the stories of the children and are soon to be published in English, Tok Pisin and Motu for distribution to radio stations.
“But action on the ground is needed too,” says Eisemberg.
With Amepou’s assistance, Eisemberg is working with landowners to establish protected beaches to help boost turtle numbers. There are added benefits in protecting the important riverbank vegetation and the surrounding forest itself.
“The challenge is to show that, through such conservation measures, landowners can generate a cash income and, as Rangers, create meaningful employment for their family and friends,” adds Eisemberg.
Prof Arthur Georges, from the University of Canberra, believes the real challenge for future conservation of Piku and those who support its preservation is to provide alternatives.
 “Local villagers in the Kikori region are able to change their behaviour towards the conservation of turtles. But we need to provide other sources of income and employment for them if we expect them to change long-held beliefs and practices,” says Georges. “Why should they forgo food and other resources now to provide for future generations when, often, these resources are needed right now to provide for their families?”
To this end, a conservation site has been developed at Wau Creek in the Kikori and Omati basin.
The idea is to get local landowner Frank John and his family to be Rangers as well as conservationists.
“If we can get this to work for Frank and his family, other landowners will follow,” says Dr Eisemberg. “It is critically important that local people are driving these initiatives, if they are to endure. ”
She would like to see similar protected beaches and feeding areas established lower in the Kikori Delta and in coastal areas.
Contacts: Dr Carla Eisemberg – until Wednesday: PNG 72064134; +61 401737884 [email protected]
Yolarnie Amepou – PNG 71323867 [email protected]
Prof Arthur Georges — +61 2 62015785 +61 418 866741 [email protected]