Turtle friend for life



Posted on 03 January 2013  | 
Dau Ni Vonu, 18, is the youngest turtle monitor in Fiji.
© Theresa Fox/WWF-South PacificEnlarge
At just 18 years old, Josua Muakula is the youngest Dau Ni Vonu in Fiji. The Dau Ni Vonu, or turtle monitors, are those few men, just 25 in all, who have taken on the massive challenge of protecting turtles and boosting their numbers by advocating for sustainable harvesting. Why would a teenager get so involved in a bid to protect the one creature he has been feeding on for most of his young life?

He answered simply, “The turtle is my friend!” It’s been around two years since Muakula last ate turtle meat. The transformation hit him like a storm one day while participating in a turtle monitor training session organized by WWF at Nakalou village in Macuata. It was then that he realised just how defenceless the ‘vonu’ really is. 

“This is one animal that doesn’t put up a fight, from when we catch it to when we kill it for the pot,” he said. “It’s a sad creature, the way it just quietly waits to die.”

For a boy who has hunted turtles for game and food, the realization stirred deep regret in him and he wanted to make a difference for turtles. “I wanted to stand up for them because I found out how their numbers kept on going down,” he said. “I know that if we don’t do something about it, future generations will never get to see a turtle and knowing the important role the turtle plays in our marine environment helped cement my decision.”

Muakula said he has consumed between 70-80 kilograms of turtle meat in his life. Growing up at Denimanu village on Yadua island in Bua, his life has been closely intertwined with the sea. Ever since he can remember, he has been out fishing or diving for turtles. He caught even more when he dropped out of school in Form Four and took up bêche-de-mer diving as a career.

Muakula said it was always a proud, vainglorious moment to walk home with a turtle in tow.“Everyone at the island loved turtle meat, it’s so tasty so if you came with one, then you would truly make people happy because island tradition is such that the meat is shared out equally,” he said. “And all the young boys competed, so if you caught a turtle it was like a stamp of approval for manhood, or you were seen as having the potential of becoming a great diver one day!”

“The WWF training changed my life, I saw a turtle cry after that, and the tears moved me. “It wanted my protection so I decided to leave behind my once favourite dish.” These days Muakula actively rallies behind turtles, sharing the turtle gospel wherever and whenever he can – especially with his worst critics – his peers. 

In the first few months of his new journey, they often teased him, taunting him with mouth-watering turtle meat dishes, challenging his knowledge about the decline in numbers of the marine reptile.

“It was hard even to watch them kill one so I just stayed away from where this occurred,” he said.
“But I kept on telling them about the need to protect turtles and eventually some of them started changing too.” 

“Now several want to sign up as turtle monitors and have decided to also make
a stand for turtles.”

“They know me, and they see the change and they wonder about it so I work hard to impress upon them the importance of turtles, not just as a source of food, but also the role it plays in the sea.”

“We wouldn’t enjoy a lot of the other fishes that we earn an income from if we didn’t have
turtles.”

“We need them, so I show them how serious it is by not eating turtle meat and they see I
mean business.”

“Now like me they want to be turtle friends for life.”

Partly as a result of WWF-Fiji’s awareness campaigns, policy development, and community initiatives, the country’s Department of Fisheries has declared additional protection for turtles. Hunting permits will no longer be issued between the months of November and February for a period of ten years. 
Dau Ni Vonu, 18, is the youngest turtle monitor in Fiji.
© Theresa Fox/WWF-South Pacific Enlarge