On a tiny beach on the west coast of Bioko, a small island part of Equatorial Guinea, is one of the only places leatherback sea turtles nest and lay their eggs.
Poachers scour this beach to capture and kill the 800-900 pound leatherback turtles to sell their meat back in villages across the island and on the mainland.
Because of the high level of poaching in this area, a team of five including one Nashville Zoo primate keeper, Rachel Schleicher, spent four and a half months from October 2018-mid February 2019 researching and protecting these sea turtles, along with other species that live in the nearby rainforest.
This group is part of the Bioko Marine Turtle Program through Purdue University at Fort Wayne, which collects data about a variety of species on Bioko.
“Leatherback sea turtles are critically endangered and we’re on that beach because that’s the second most popular beach in the world for them to go up on,” Schleicher said. “Since the poachers know we’re there researching, they don’t come around as much.”
Schleicher collected data by gathering tissue samples, counting and weighing eggs, pit tagging the leatherbacks to identify them when/if they returned to the beach and measured some turtles that were approximately 9 feet long and weighed close to a ton.
“I liked working with tissue samples the most,” Schleicher said. “I didn’t realize you could find out where they forage from a tissue sample, so I thought that was really interesting.”
Along with leatherback sea turtles, Schleicher also took trips into the rainforest where she came across various primates including drills, red-eared guenons, crowned guenons and putty nose monkeys.
Working primarily with primates back in Nashville, she was able to strengthen her keeper skills and implement them when she came across a group of drills while out completing a primate survey.
“I was done with the survey and walking back and ran into a group of 12 or 13 drills. They startled me and I startled them,” Schleicher said. “The females were starting to alarm bark and then I saw there were two males in the group that started to make two-phased grunts. They started to bluff charge me, and I backed up into a log with one of the males 10 feet away.”
Knowing not to look into a primates eyes, which can upset them, Schleicher averted her eyes. Next time she looked back up, the group had started to move away.
Throughout her time on Bioko, Schleicher also had to cross shark-infested rivers, sleep in a hiking tent and travel long distances to retrieve water.
When not researching the animal inhabitants on the island, she presented to local students why it’s important to protect the turtles on the island.
“I taught a class about conservation and how you shouldn’t eat turtles, just protect them,” Schleicher said. “What’s difficult is that I know we need to protect these species, but how do you relay that to a culture that has been using these animals for so long.”
Schleicher hopes to return to the African island in the future after completing a Master’s degree in wildlife conservation, but said she will take what she learned from this experience and apply it at Nashville Zoo.
“If I go up to the primates I’m working with and am really excited about something or I’m constantly staring at them, then they’re not going to act natural,” Schleicher said. “But if I blend in and act like I’m part of their environment, they’ll act natural.”
Photo Credit: Rachel Schleicher, Lisa Sinclair and Parker Levinson