The Sea Turtle Hostages of Nias
7th January 2020, mid-afternoon and the tide's higher than usual. I guess it's a full moon or one's just around the corner. It's pouring and windy. No one is keen and hungry enough to go out to The Point. Rain water continues to drip off my jacket as I stand at the top of the staircase. Suddenly, one of the staff calls out my name to inform me that there is someone downstairs to see me.
A stranger appears at the bottom of the staircase with a box in one hand, accompanied by a sly smile stained red by his constant use of betel quids. A few workers gather around to look at the content in the box while chattering amongst themselves in their local language. They do not stay long as I start a rather lukewarm conversation with the stranger. I am absolutely unhappy to discover the content in the box. I interrogate him, take a couple of photos and gather his personal details. I assure him that that his privacy would be protected if he agrees to my conditions.
In the box is a green sea turtle, or maybe a hawksbill. It is a rather young one, about 30 cm long, maybe 7 years old with a few barnacles on its carapace. There's no time to check because all that matters is the sea turtle’s freedom.
The stranger wants to sell the sea turtle to me. This is not the first time to happen in Sorake. It has been a constant activity for the locals in the surrounding villages to visit the losmens and other residences in Sorake with the intention to sell sea turtles to the tourists and surfers. It is a business; an illegal business.
Often, they will tell the story of how they have saved the sea turtles from villagers who were going to eat them. They will also claim that it is legal in Nias and Sorake. Yes, I am not kidding. It is a lucrative and thriving business for them. Many tourists and surfers are inclined to pay and save the sea turtles. It is a catch 22 situation. The price is around 300 000 to 500 000 rupiah. Basically, the sea turtles are being held hostage. “Pay or the sea turtles die”. It creates a bad vibe. Would you like to spend your holiday like this?
The stranger with the red sinister smile claims that he rescued the sea turtle from a villager who was going to kill and eat it. He says it all with a smile. He claims that it is legal to hunt, eat and sell sea turtles in Nias. It is the usual story. He claims that he does not want any trouble. Sadly, I doubt that he is the last sea turtle kidnapper to visit Sorake in search for tourists and surfers to bribe them for the sea turtles’ freedom.
The locals around me shy away as the incident unfolds. The police are at least 30 minutes away if they react immediately. It's pouring with rain, and chances are slim that they'd drive all the way from Teluk Dalam to Sorake. To tie him up until the police arrive was also not the answer as none of the locals want to be involved in the situation.
I am on my own. Bystanders slowly disappear to pretend to do their work. They are as far away as possible from the stranger and the brewing issue.
I offer to pay for his trouble as he claimed to have saved the turtle. I will not pay for the turtle. He refuses my offer and so I walk away. 100K rupiah is too little for him.
I ask the workers for help but none of them will move. I offer to pay for helping me but there are no takers; not at any price. No one wants to help me take the sea turtle way from the kidnapper. No help is provided.
Thoughts of me with a machete on my back start to haunt me. I do not want to make a scene or start an unrest. I walk across the garden, away from that bunch of wusses who did not want to help me, and towards the house. The sea turtle kidnapper with the sinister red smile is no longer smiling. He is sitting on the steps with the box beside him.
“I am taking this,” I firmly say to him as I quickly take the box and walk away as fast as possible. Filled with fear, I so not dare look behind. I am afraid that he will chase me down the reef with a machete. My head will end up on the reef of Sorake. Would that be big news? It wasn't long ago that people in this area would sometimes kill each other over problems. The fear is real; I am willing to die for a turtle.
As I march down the garden again and towards the reef, the rain is pelting down on my head. I wade the knee high water on to the reef to get as deep as possible before I reach the edge, before the waves push me over. Feeling a bit safe, I have a quick look behind to check if a machete is coming towards me.
No one is behind me. I am safe. It's just me and the sea turtle on the reef. I feel safe from the turtle kidnapper. But not safe from Mother Nature. It is pouring, the tide was coming in and the waves were breaking stronger. And I am afraid of lightning.
I looked down to check if the sea turtle was doing fine. It is calm. It looks at me. I must look like a giant albino sea turtle with my white hood on. I continue to walk as deep and as safe as possible for the both of us. By now, my dress is soaking wet and sticking to my legs and my hair is plastered all over my wet face. I stopped walking when the sea water reaches my thighs and deep and safe enough for the turtle. As gently as possible, I remove it from the box. It doesn't struggle. I place it in the water and it smoothly swims away, over the edge of the reef and into the dark water.
I am worried as I watch it disappear into the water. I am worried for the sea turtles in Sorake, Nias and its surrounding area. It is unfortunate that none of the locals in Sorake understand that hunting, eating and trading sea turtles will affect their land, livelihood and the future generations. They do not see how it would affect them. This incident is not the first time and I doubt that it will be the last.