'Oh man, it's really sick,' said one of the girls as she plonked down into one of the deckchairs in the bar at Big Milly's Backyard. 'There's a turtle on its back on the beach, and it's all bleeding. It's horrible.'
Unfortunately this isn't an uncommon occurrence in Kokrobite. From August to March the beach is a nesting site for sea turtles, and although turtles are a protected species and it's illegal to harm them, it doesn't stop man and turtle clashing in a bloody mess. The sign outside Big Milly's might say 'Turtle Nesting Site: Keep the beach clean, don't collect their eggs, kill them or trap them', but if you're a local fisherman, you're going to be far more concerned with the survival of man than the survival of the turtle.
Turtles suffocate when they're turned on their backs, as their heavy intestines crush their lungs into the top of the shell, slowly killing them; with this as motivation, it didn't take long for Wendy to drum up a team of young, strapping lads to wander down the beach, turn the beast over and carry it back into the sea. 'But don't bring any valuables with you,' she warned. 'Things might get a bit heated.'
The relationship between the obrunis of Big Milly's and the fishermen of the local village isn't that good, though I never found out why. You're warned not to take anything onto the beach – even a towel – or it may well get stolen, and most obrunis hardly ever leave the safe haven of Milly's compound, but the fishing village is quite a long way down the beach, so interaction is minimal. When it happens, though, it's electric.
Some ten minutes down the beach we found a large group of locals crowded round a massive six-foot-long leatherback turtle, one of the rarest turtles in the area. A few obrunis were already there and had managed to flip the turtle back over, but it just sat there on the sand, weakly flicking its flippers, unable to push itself back down the beach. The obrunis were arguing with the locals; there was a problem.
The story, according to the fisherman who was shouting the loudest, was that this turtle had got stuck in his net, ruining it in the process, and that he was going to kill it and sell it to pay for the damage done to his livelihood. Wendy, an old hand in these discussions, asked to see the broken net, but all the fisherman could come up with was an ancient bundle of rope that had obviously been sitting on the beach for months. There was something fishy going on here, and when the fisherman demanded a fee of 10,000 cedis to put the turtle back into the sea – theoretically as compensation for his net – culture clash set in. It was pretty obvious by this stage that the turtle had crawled up the beach to lay its eggs, and the fisherman had seen the opportunity to flip it over, either to kill it and eat it, or to use it as a bargaining chip with the bleeding-heart obrunis who would no doubt wander down from the local hotel. The broken net was obviously a cover story.
Unfortunately for the fisherman the obruni posse outnumbered the locals, and slowly but surely the burliest white men started dragging the turtle towards the sea. At one point the fisherman and his mates tried pushing the turtle back up the beach in a sick tug-of-war, with the turtle flopping sadly in the middle of it all, but by now most of the locals were arguing to put the turtle back in, and some swift and not-too-serious fisticuffs saw the fisherman give up his prize, though not without a lot of shouting. Ten minutes later the turtle reached the sea and slowly lumbered off into the deep, its egg-laying mission scuppered for now; the only evidence of anything untoward was the gaggle of arguing humans back on the beach, where the more evangelically ecological obrunis had decided to ride back to Big Milly's on their ideological high horses, dispensing conservationist wisdom to everyone en route.
The problem with slagging off the locals for their lack of ecology is that to them, turtles are fair game. Out here, if you catch something then you own it, and the concept of ecological conservation is not only completely unheard of, it's totally inapplicable. It might technically be illegal to kill turtles in Kokrobite, but the policing isn't heavy, and when you're a poor fisherman trying to make ends meet, it's a case of the turtle's survival or yours. Nothing here is black and white; we were altruistically saving the life of an endangered species, a worthy cause indeed, but to the fisherman we were interfering in his life. My sympathy for him faltered when he started trying to charge us for putting the turtle back in the sea – that's exploitation, plain and simple – but it's a good example of how futile it is to try to apply western morals to the African way of life.
I guess the only way to tackle it is to shrug your shoulders, try not to offend too many people, and just drag the turtle back into the sea. And then you have to accept that it will keep on happening until the local fishermen of Ghana are as rich as we are; then they too can afford the luxury of looking at things from the animal's perspective. We have a long, long way to go before conservation becomes an option for the whole world.