“Gentlemen present in the room — have you ever eaten turtle eggs?” This was how Musyafirin, the head of West Sumbawa district in Indonesia’s West Nusa Tenggara province, broke the ice with regional fisheries officials in June. After a murmur of laughter in the room, the meeting on turtle conservation got underway.
Elected in 2016 to lead a district home to some 150,000 people, Musyafirin recalled childhood sailing trips as boats cruised the coastline for turtles. But the concern for policymakers at the June meeting was the region’s taste — and their own — for the eggs of sea turtles.
More expensive than chicken or duck eggs, turtle eggs have long been considered a luxury product and a mark of honor for guests in a region sustained by agriculture, fisheries and mining. When government officials visit local communities, hosts rush out with turtle eggs in tribute to their guests.
“We are treated to them the moment we arrive,” Musyafirin said.
Five of the seven known species of sea turtle can be found in the waters off West Sumbawa. The animals perform important ecosystem services, such as regulating seagrass growth, but globally all seven species of sea turtle are listed as threatened, and some critically endangered.
Poaching of sea turtle eggs is the main driver of the crisis — in some countries, around 90% of turtle nests are destroyed for the illegal wildlife trade. In much of West Sumbawa, turtle eggs are entrenched in both the culture and the economy.
The day after meeting district chief Musyafirin, the head of the district fisheries department, Amin Sudiono, drove two hours south to Sekongkang, a ward on the southwest coast of the island popular with experienced surfers.
The purpose of the trip was to begin the delicate fieldwork of changing behavior in a community where turtle eggs are an important source of income.
“We are going to approach everyone directly,” Amin said, as officials fanned out to three different communities around Sekongkong.