Click to read: Juliette Velosoa - our Conservation Hero

Juliette Velosoa - our Conservation Hero

Juliette is one of the key members of our team in Madagascar. She has dedicated the last 16 years of her life to the conservation and restoration of the rere, also known as the Madagascar big headed turtle. She embodies everything that Durrell stands for and we are extremely proud that the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund has declared her a Conservation Hero – because there is no better description.

The first question you may be asking is what is a rere? It is Madagascar’s only endemic fresh water turtle (Erymnochelys madagascariensis) and like much of the native biodiversity of the country, is Critically Endangered. In fact Juliette’s first project with Durrell, when she was a student, was to survey the 105 sites where these turtles were known to exist and she found that over a quarter were in immediate risk of dying out and another third were in serious decline. In other words, the species was in serious trouble.

Rere are special animals, first because they are the only representative of their genus in Madagascar and they are most closely related to turtles in South America than anywhere else. They are an ancient species and have existed largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. But they are also closely linked to the health of their wetland environments. The major pressures facing these species have been over-exploitation by people and changes to their habitat. Therefore protecting the rere is about having a healthy wetland (both rivers and lakes) and healthy wetlands are more productive for the people who rely on them for survival.

Juliette has led much of the conservation efforts for this species, whether it has been through pioneering the use of head-starting to increase hatchling survival, protecting nests or working with local communities. In her time, she has led the protection of over 500 rere nests, which has helped over 4,500 hatchlings get a much safer start to life. By collecting some eggs and bringing them into our captive facility in Ampijoroa, we have also raised (head-started) a further 350 turtles which have been released back to key wetlands. Finally we have managed to breed over 100 turtles in captivity and in 2015 these will be released to the wild.

Working with this species is particularly challenging. There is very little support in the areas where Juliette works. Sites are isolated without roads, infrastructure or communications. When Juliette visits the Ambondrobe field site, for example, she and the team will have to walk over 90km, which takes at least 18 hours to get there. This site is also at risk from local bandits and so she has to be in constant contact with local communities to know what the situation is.

But what is most impressive is the relationship Juliette has managed to develop with the many communities that use the wetlands we are trying to protect.Together we have found ways that local people and wildlife can both benefit from better management of natural resources. By working with traditional laws that govern the use of natural resources, the dina, and especially closed fishing seasons (Loadrano), local community associations have been able to protect turtles and improve habitat quality.

Thanks to her work, the rere is protected within seven of the eight watersheds in the species’ range.  Juliette has been a leader in promoting rere conservation at five of these sites, the National Parks at Baly Bay and Ankarafantsika and the New Protected Areas at MenabeAntimena, Tsimembo and Ambondrobe. Ambondrobe is the first New Protected Area being created primarily for the conservation of this species.

Against the many challenges that she and Durrell face when working with some of the world’s most threatened species, Juliette has shown that it is possible to help a species and through that species improve habitats for people as well. That is why she is a Conservation Hero to us.

Posted 13 November 2014

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