By Nabiha Shahab
PRAMUKA ISLAND ~ On an island just a stoneâ€™s throw from Jakarta, turtle conservationist Salim starts his day by scrubbing moss from the carapaces of his tiny charges.
Here they are safe, but soon they will fight for their lives in the increasingly polluted ocean lapping nearby.
“Not even my family can be bothered to do this,” he sighs as he puts another squirming reptile back into its blue plastic tub, where it will stay until it is deemed strong enough to be set free.
For two decades, Salim has been working to protect the critically endangered hawksbill turtles found around the Thousand Islands, an archipelago of white-beached isles scattered 45 kilometers north of Jakarta.
The wiry, mustachioed 57-year-old has seen the waters surrounding the islands slowly become more poisoned as runoff from the teeming capital, home to 12 million people, expands ever further from Java’s shores.
A large portion of the Thousand Islands, or Kepulauan Seribu, was declared a national park in 1986; so in theory, the flora and fauna here is protected. But in practice, nothing can stop the invasion of the muck.
A 2005 Indonesian study declared Jakarta Bay, which abuts the park, a “dying ecosystem.” Organic and heavy metals are well above safe limits, though the most recent tests officials provide are dated from 1995. These found dangerous PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) at a level of 1,320 parts per billion – well above the safe limit then of 0.03 parts per billion.
The hawksbill, one of the world’s seven marine turtle species – six of which are found in Indonesia – used to be so prevalent here it was named the official mascot of the islands.
National park head Sumarto says that 20 years ago, the turtles laid eggs on almost all of the islands here. Divers spotted turtles four out of every five forays underwater.
By the 1990s, they were found on only 13 of the 110 islands. While the turtles should instinctively return to where they were born, they are repelled by the pollution and forced to seek out different places to nest.
Today eggs are laid on just three to five of the northernmost islands – the ones furthest away from Jakarta’s pollution.
“Now you would be very lucky if you were to meet them during a dive at all,” says Sumarto.
The turtles lay a total of around 14,000 eggs a year here, though only about one in 1,000 makes it to adulthood, the average for all marine turtles.
The government estimates that about 40 percent of Jakartans dump their domestic garbage directly into the rivers that crisscross the city. The refuse ends up in Jakarta Bay and oozes towards the islands.
Besides polluting the waters, the debris itself poses a direct threat. Some turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and try to eat them, or get entangled in them and eventually starve to death.
On top of this, for the past three years oil slicks from an exploration area north of the islands have repeatedly washed back around the turtles’ nesting grounds.
Salim, who was one of the national park’s earlier employees and has won an environment award from the president for his work, points out one turtle with a carapace so deformed that it is convex rather than the normal concave.
“We found three young turtles like this, but only this one survived. We had never found anything like this before,” he says. That was 1993, when alarm bells were starting to ring. But things have only got worse.
Humans have been direct predators of the turtles too – hunting the eggs to eat, and selling their attractive shells as souvenirs, says the park’s Sumarto.
This is why the local population – some 21,000 people living on six islands in the park – are included in conservation programs here, he says.
But experts are not upbeat about the prospect of turtles lasting much longer so close to Jakarta.
“The program is fine for education but it cannot be successful,” says Ismu Sutanto Suwelo, a turtle specialist with the Indonesian Wildlife Fund.
“It is too close to (human) populations and from the north there are threats from oil exploration and ship waste-dumping,” he said, adding however that the animals would likely find other places to nest in the archipelago nation.
One of Indonesia’s most experienced divers, Cipto Aji Gunawan, has visited the islands here repeatedly over the past three decades. He too dismisses efforts now as too little in the face of the onslaught of filth from Jakarta.
“Unless Jakarta gets it act together and starts managing its waste responsibly, there will be no hope for Kepulauan Seribu,” he told AFP.