August 14, 2023 • Trip Reports
In the rural village of Matura, located on the southernmost Caribbean island of Trinidad, an extraordinary woman named Suzan Lakhan-Baptiste has been revolutionizing the local community and leaving an indelible mark on conservation efforts. As a naturalist with Oceanic Society, I recently had the opportunity to co-lead a volunteer trip to Matura where our travelers participated in hands-on sea turtle research and witnessed firsthand the remarkable journey of Suzan and her organization, Nature Seekers. Our group was lucky enough to have Suzan join us for a few days and share her incredible story.
Suzan dedicated her life to the preservation of leatherback turtles starting at a young age. Photo courtesy of Age of Union.
It began decades ago when, as a young girl, Suzan spent hours in nature and much of her time on the beaches of Matura – a critically important nesting ground for leatherback sea turtles. It didn’t take long for her to encounter the numerous challenges the leatherbacks faced. During nesting season, from April to August, Matura beaches transformed from wild coastline to a “Wild West” for sea turtle poachers. Slaughter was rampant – leatherback eggs and meat were harvested for quick monetary gain, and turtles were left to die on the beach, their stench lingering for miles. There were no regulations, no patrollers, and no activists. This was normal and accepted. Witnessing this carnage firsthand, Suzan vowed to dedicate her life to the preservation of this vulnerable species, and she embarked on a lifelong journey to do just that.
The organization that would become Nature Seekers started as many organizations do, with a community of like minded citizens that decided to take action. They spent days and nights patrolling the beach, and spreading awareness throughout the community. In 1989, the nation’s Forestry Division declared Matura Beach a protected area, and requested volunteers from the community to enforce the new regulations. Eager to help, the group didn’t hesitate to join the call. Not a single night went by without one or more of them patrolling the beach. And doing this was a lot of work. To even get to Matura Beach from the village, Suzan and her team had to walk over 2 miles through dense forests. Once on the beach, the nesting area spans more than 5 miles. Not to mention it was the middle of the night, every single night. Despite being discouraged, mocked, and called “crazy turtle woman” the group kept at it.
Suzan gives an orientation briefing to sea turtle volunteers with Oceanic Society. © Rosie Jeffrey
In 1990, this group officially became a non-profit organization, called Nature Seekers. Their primary goal was to activate the community to protect and conserve the leatherback turtle and Matura’s ecosystems. They carried on their nightly surveillance, organized community patrols, held meetings at community centers, campaigned against ongoing threats, visited schools and neighboring communities, met with government officials, and advocated for stricter regulations and enforcement. Most importantly, they were adamant about involving the local community in turtle monitoring, data collection, and hatchling release activities.
Year after year, Nature Seekers’ influence grew, and the community transformed. Their efforts not only resulted in the protection of the leatherback sea turtles, but turned Matura into a thriving eco-tourism destination. Today, visitors from around the globe flock to the shores of Matura to witness the awe-inspiring sea turtle nesting and hatching rituals that have been occurring for over 100 million years. The growth of guest houses, nature tours, and handicraft businesses are now flourishing. Nature Seekers showed the community that the leatherback turtle is much more valuable alive than dead. What was once a quick means of financial turnaround, has now become a financial investment. By ensuring the survival of adult nesting turtles, they are increasing the odds of return visits and hatchlings. More turtles = more tourists.
Today, leatherback poaching in Matura is practically non-existent, and the nesting ground is one of the most productive rookeries in the world. Matura hosts more than 2,000 nesting leatherbacks and 5,000+ nests each season, with records of more than 400 turtles in a single night. Thousands of tourists visit the coast each year, including sea turtle volunteers who provide hands-on assistance to Nature Seekers.
In spite of efforts to protect the leatherbacks’ nesting grounds, leatherbacks still face numerous threats throughout their life cycle. Fisheries bycatch remains the number one cause of population decline, followed by other significant threats such as plastic pollution, coastal development, and climate change. And there are still many places in the world where sea turtle egg collection and slaughter run rampant.
Suzan Lakhan-Baptiste’s remarkable journey exemplifies the profound difference that one person can make in the world. Through her dedication, passion, and unwavering belief in the power of community, she has turned the tide in the battle to save leatherback sea turtles and created a legacy of environmental conservation in Matura. Suzan and Nature Seekers stand as shining examples of how small grassroots initiatives can grow into transformative movements that not only protect our planet’s fragile ecosystems but also inspire generations to come.
You can support Suzan and Nature Seekers by participating in an Oceanic Society Expedition to Trinidad and lending your hand as a sea turtle volunteer.
Oceanic Society volunteers with a leatherback turtle on Matura Beach, Trinidad. © Ashleigh Bandimere