Turtles in turf war on Zakynthos

ZAKYNTHOS – Endangered sea turtles on the island of Zakynthos are battling for a place in the sand alongside more than one million tourists in a conflict of conservation versus cash. Zakynthos is the most important Mediterranean nesting ground and home for the largest population of the Caretta Caretta loggerhead sea turtles. It is also a popular holiday destination, especially for British and German tourists. A National Marine Park was set up in 1999 in Laganas Bay on the island but ecologists say park officials and locals are not enforcing conservation measures and this is threatening nesting. Nesting sea turtles fear noise, lights and humans. If disturbed they may head back to the sea and destroy eggs by dumping them in the water. Hatchlings also need a clear route to the sea. Only one in 1,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood. People on this island off southwestern Greece are supposed to control speed limits, tourist movements, the placing of beach umbrellas and building to ensure the safety of the turtles. But for many it boils down to a question of economics. Some fear the turtles are costing them too much and this has bred hostility towards conservation efforts. Amalia Karagounis, the newly appointed head of the marine park, says that when she took over last year park administration was in disarray and public hostility running high. «The local people hated the National Marine Park. They thought it was their enemy,» she said. In 2002, Greece was declared in violation of European Union law by the European Court of Justice for failing to protect the turtles. The European Commission is considering taking Greece to court again, and the country could be fined. Loggerhead turtles, with their rusty coloured shells and large heads, migrate for thousands of miles guided by a homing pigeon-style sense of the earth’s magnetic field. There are already signs on Zakynthos that nesting patterns are being disrupted. On Sekania Beach, which was bought by environmental group WWF to protect the turtles, the number of nests has doubled over the past decade to 1,000, half of the island’s total. «The turtles are behaving in a different way. We have many more nests, more than in other years, because of the tourist influence in all the other areas,» said WWF Zakynthos project leader Hariklea Minotou on Sekania Beach. On other beaches, tourists ignore guards to wander along beaches at night, sometimes tampering with nests. Banned bicycles and motorcycles roll along the sand. Beach chairs and umbrellas exceed the legal limit or are moved too close to nests. Tourists can take turtle-spotting tours on boats but many said they knew little about conservation. Few realize what the triangular wire cages placed over nests on the beaches are for. «I just passed one, but have no idea what they are,» said 21-year-old British tourist Becky Watkins. John Humphreys, also from Britain, said he would be willing to comply with conservation measures, within limits. «If it came to the point where, if they get more and more turtles and the tourists will have to move down, well, what do they want, turtles or tourists?» he said. The battle between conservation and cash is at its fiercest on Daphne Beach, a prominent nesting site which is becoming more popular with tourists. Although building on the beach has been illegal for decades and cars, beach furniture and major landscape changes are banned, several houses and taverns have sprung up. «It is out of control,» said WWF’s Minotou. A decades-old government plan to compensate landowners for not using their beachfront properties has never materialized. «After 25 years the state will need several millions to satisfy landowners through compensation,» said Dionysis Vitsos, a prominent Daphne landowner. The government and ecologists also proposed turning the beach into an ecotourism center, an idea that never convinced landowners. «Until now there was mistrust,» said Vitsos. «No one could convince us that we could work together.» After talks with marine park head Karagounis, locals said they would be willing to accept an ecotourism center pilot project. But they also want controlled tourism, and say buildings that are on the beach should remain and be legalized. «You cannot throw away the man and you cannot throw away the turtle, and that is the difficulty,» Karagounis said. Ecologists say that if laws are not enforced on Daphne, it could open a Pandora’s box of conservation violations elsewhere. They fear Daphne could be lost as a nesting ground, just as west Laganas beach was after it became noisy and crowded. «We already have one less beach because of Laganas. Nobody knows what will happen (at Daphne),» said Minotou. «Will the situation be controlled? It’s a question we have for the future.»