Dr Christophe Eizaguirre

Dr Christophe Eizaguirre is a Reader and Director of Postgraduate Taught Programmes at QMUL's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, where he leads the Eizaguirre lab for Evolutionary and Conservation Genetics of Aquatic Organisms. His turtle conservation project was shortlisted for the NCCPE Engage Award 2016 in the STEM category. 

Dr Christophe Eizaguirre answered a cry for scientific help to save a threatened species of turtle. 

Using public engagement and education as his ‘weapon of choice’, there’s growing evidence that he and his team have started to help protect the turtle, where machine guns and bullets have previously failed. 

Endangered turtles of Cape Verde 

Seven years ago, the many thousands of loggerhead turtles returning to the islands of the Cape Verde to lay their eggs were becoming critically endangered. 

Too many were meeting a grisly end on the beaches of these ten beautiful islands off the coast of West Africa. They were dying at the hands of local poachers, who took away their organs to be served up on dinner tables as traditional treats for the many special occasions of the summer time. 

Numbers were falling dramatically, with up to 3,000 turtles killed in 2008 alone on the main nesting island of Boavista. At this point, local campaign and support groups in the islands sounded the alarm. Cape Verde had the third biggest turtle population behind Florida and Oman - but at that rate not for long. 

Dr Christophe Eizaguirre, senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London heard the call: “I saw how desperate the situation was, and some of my colleagues were going to Cape Verde as oceanographers. I was a bit jealous! Then they called for biologists too, and I discovered that Cape Verde had a very large turtle population.” 

Soon, and with an innovation grant from the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research (GEOMAR) in Germany secured, he was on the islands, and was immediately shocked at what he saw. 

“It made me feel physically sick. Particularly the smell of a dead turtle lying there on the beach, cut open alive and left there to die.” 

A different approach 

Initiatives to save the turtles were clearly not working. A different approach was needed, and Dr Eizaguirre and his team began to realise what that change might be: 

“I’m a real believer in education – it’s in my veins”, he added. “We can change a lot of things through conservation biology, but we can only really move forward through education.”  

The approach he and his team took was to educate the local population by working with students from the university. “They did the public engagement talks and we published pamphlets in the native language. People started to be educated in just how great the turtles were for the area, for the economy.”  

Dr Eizaguirre has a deep-rooted passion for his chosen field. It’s clear that he genuinely cares, and his enthusiasm is infectious. “I believe in science”, he adds, “…I believe in facts, and the current world makes me a bit sick. We can’t just invent facts! It’s really important people can learn and verify facts. The oceans and the environment are changing, and if we want our kids to inhabit a healthy planet then it’s this generation that has to change it…not the next.” 

Public engagement and conservation 

Wind forward to today and Dr Eizaguirre and the team are seeing dramatic changes in the turtle population at Cape Verde. The number of turtles returning has stopped decreasing and even achieved a last decade high in 2016 – they are all convinced that the combined efforts of NGOs, scientists and communities make the difference. 

Change began with the realisation that it was the local population themselves, through public engagement forged locally, that could unlock the problem. 

When Chris first arrived, NGOs and the army tried to protect the marine turtles of Cape Verde using machine guns, to scare poachers away. While this had some effect, it clearly was not the solution, creating conflict between local communities and those tasked with protecting the turtles. Today, on the island of Maio for instance, armed guards are replaced by volunteers from local football clubs ‘patrolling’ the beaches. So, what has happened? 

In short, education – and public engagement. “We started by recruiting a number of biology students to spend the summer working with the turtles. They have worked with many of our NGO partners (Turtle Foundation, Maio Foundation Biodiversity, Biosfera, Projecto Vito or INDP) on the islands. The focus was on spreading the message of what amazing creatures the turtles are”, said Chris. 

The real turning-point came with the realisation that students and patrol leaders who returned the message to their home towns and villages made the most difference. Said Chris: “The local people began to see that their sons and daughters, their nephews and nieces had work as a result of the turtles…they were close to their hearts and so started to change.”  

It was these students who were part of the communities who led the engagement process – the talks, the leafletting, the awareness-raising of the amazing lives the turtles lead. For example, turtles use magnetic fields to find their native beach after navigating hundreds of miles of sea journeys. 

Next steps 

The battle to conserve the marine turtles of the Cape Verde archipelago is far from complete. There are ten islands and each one faces a different type of threat for turtles. Two islands, Sal and Boavista, are tourist hot spots and thus it is difficult for the team to gain a profile for their work. Fogo is an active volcanic island, while Santa Luzia is uninhabited and yet poses a problem for turtles as fishermen take their food. In Maio not only are adult turtles killed but their nests are poached for the turtle eggs. 

The scientific research team is amassing a big collection of data on turtle movements so that everyone can access it in the future. Turtles are being tagged and soon an online site will be launched and people will be able to follow the movements of individual turtles. 

Dr Eizaguirre has high praise for the partners, the NGOs and the members of his own team for the successes so far. “I’m just one person among an amazing group of people,” he said.