- Only a few years ago, the enormous marine turtles site at Ervatao beach on Cape Verde's sparsely populated Boa Vista Island was discovered. It is the world's third most important loggerhead nesting site. Environmentalists fear that Cape Verde's growing tourism industry will wipe out also this nesting site.
Slowly dragging its shell onto the beach, a turtle emerges from the ocean. It is midnight and the moon is casting its shadow over the remote, white-sandy coastline of Boa Vista - one of the ten islands that make up the West African island-nation of Cape Verde. The slow turtle, if not disturbed, will make a nest for more than 40 whitish, golf ball-sized eggs and return to the ocean.
Every year, from late May to September, more than 3,000 loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) come ashore to Cape Verde's beaches, particularly at Ervatao beach, the third most important loggerhead nesting site in the world after Oman's Massirah Island and the Floridian keys. Amazingly enough, the Boa Vista site was discovered only a few years ago.
"Marine turtles have been wiped out on almost all of the other Cape Verdean islands, but they have thrived so far on Boa Vista where human predation and pressure is lower," Dr Luis Felipe Lopez, a 64 year-old Spanish biology professor from Las Palmas University, told the environmentalist group WWF. Mr Lopez is leading a local conservation group, Natura 2000, to protect the turtles' nesting habitat at Ervatao.
With only 4,200 people living on the 620 km2 island - mostly inhabiting the small town of Sal Rei and a few neighbouring villages - Boa Vista is one of the archipelago's most pristine islands. "But for how long?" environmentalists ask.
Ironically, the island's biggest threat - and by extension a threat to the turtles - may come from the unspoiled coastline itself. With 50 km of beautiful, uninhabited beaches, the island is likely to become a magnet for sun-seekers, especially if the Praia government's plans to develop the area for tourism go through.
Because of poor soils and regular droughts, only 10 percent of Cape Verde's land is suitable for agriculture. Like other small island states with limited resources, the government is trying to boost revenue through tourism development, including actively promoting foreign investments throughout the archipelago. This strategy is starting to pay off as the number of tourists visiting Cape Verde has jumped from 67,000 in 2000 to 178,000 in 2004.
Boa Vista is part of the Cape Verdean tourism development strategy. The island now has the second most hotel rooms in Cape Verde, with more than 1,200 beds in 12 hotels. Four more are under construction, including two large resorts that will double the island's accommodation capacity. Some suggest that future tourism development will increase the island's capacity to 30,000 beds within 20 years.
To help reach that projection, Boa Vista has been chosen as the site of one of three planned international airports. Currently, there is only one main international airport on the island of Sal. The new airport on Santiago Island, outside the capital Praia, is soon to be opened. With the new airport in Boa Vista, "we believe that up to one million tourists could visit Boa Vista each year," fears Ricardo Monteiro, WWF's Programme Officer in Cape Verde.
"However, the planning process lacks transparency," Mr Monteiro complains. "Nothing has been done to assess the potential effect of land speculation, inflation, and increased immigration to the island. And, it does not address the likely negative impact on the natural beauty and biodiversity of the island," he claims.
Despite 650 years of human settlement, Cape Verde still hosts a high degree of biodiversity, featuring many species of animals and plants that are found nowhere else, according to WWF. The surrounding waters of the Atlantic Ocean provide important feeding grounds for marine turtles and breeding humpback whales, as well as fishing grounds for both local and international fishers. Recent studies have also found coral reefs of global significance off the coast of several of the islands.
With help from WWF and Natura 2000, the government has identified and declared 47 protected areas throughout the archipelago. "There are rays of hope as the government starts to realize that it must take the protection of the environment seriously," says Celeste Benchimol of WWF Cape Verde. "They need to strengthen their environmental legislation, as well as conduct environmental impact assessments. These should be carried by independent experts and not by tourism investors themselves," he urges.
WWF fears that certain areas slated for tourism development are adjacent to, or overlap with, protected areas. "Criteria for selecting these zones are not always transparent, and they usually lack clear marked boundaries and management plans," Mr Benchimol added.
For example, a project on the island of Sal aims to build a marina and a tourist resort for 15,000 people in the middle of a marine protected area where humpback whales feed. Around Praia, large-scale tourism projects are already being developed, copying the successes of the "nearby" Canary Islands - some 1,500 km to the north.
But not everyone wants Cape Verde to become one big resort. "We believe tourism is not only sea and sun," stresses Filomena Ribeiro, Cape Verde's Tourism Director. "We don't want to be the next Canary Islands. We have learned from our initial mistakes when we developed tourism infrastructure without control," she emphasises.
Natura 2000 hopes there may be a way in which tourists and turtles can cohabit on the beautiful island of Boa Vista in the future. The group offers training to turtle specialists from Cape Verde. "We will employ guides from the local communities," says Dr Lopez. "If locals can be directly involved in, and benefit from, turtle protection, the beach will remain a paradise for the endangered loggerhead," he concludes.
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