Turtle Project - Shritika Prakash
The University of the South Pacific (USP) as a regional institute is at the cutting edge of research and study to protect our marine species and impact change in local communities through various initiatives such as the Turtle Project.
Led by our very own Shritika Prakash, a Research Assistant for an externally funded USP sea turtle project at the Discipline of Marine Studies (SAGEONS). Shritika is a trailblazer in her community becoming the first in her family to attain a Master’s degree in Marine Science.
Prakash has been part of the Turtle Project since its inception in 2014 as a volunteer, rising the academic ladder to becoming a Research Assistant allowing her to visit Fijian communities far and wide to create awareness and inform the public about the imperativeness of protecting turtles.
“As part of our fieldwork, I travelled to various islands such as Yadua and a few in the Mamanucas. I didn’t just visit communities within these islands to collect data but to share my findings from over the years and inform Fijians about the status quo of the Hawksbill Turtle,” Prakash said.
“My research focuses on the distribution of Hawksbill Turtle nests and the paternal contribution of the hawksbill turtle nesting population in Fiji,” she further highlighted.
The passionate 29-year-old shared that she had also visited northern Lau, Vanua Levu (Macuata and Bua) to properly establish the population of the Hawksbill Turtle in Fiji waters and learn of the practices that were causing the population to decline.
“My primary site for study and research was Yadua island and interestingly when I started, there were barely any turtles within the fishing ground nor any nesting ground on the island. After inquiring with villagers of Denimanu on the island, we learned that the decline is due to traditional consumption of the species,” she added.
Ms Prakash said that earlier research findings about the declining turtle population prompted Denimanu villagers to ban total consumption completely.
She added, “Over the years, the project has had a massive impact on the island of Yadua and this is reflected in our finding of the return of Hawksbill Turtle from 2018 onwards. Since 2018, there has been a notable increase in the number of turtles on the island and they’re even returning to nest there as well. These are some of the changes we have noticed until today,” Ms Prakash said.
“Being part of the Turtle Project throughout the years allowed me to realise and action my ideas to push for the protection of marine species through scientific research and community awareness,” she said.
“This project aims to help local communities to identify and implement solutions to address turtle populations across the country when the project ends. As of now, we have community members who know what to look out for and what factors to consider to help us collate relevant data over the past few years,” Ms Prakash added.
The Turtle project has been up and running for the past nine years in Fiji with different phases of research conducted over the years to positively influence change in various local communities including the Lau and Lomaiviti Groups.
Ms Prakash added that the project was conducted in partnership with various other organisations including the fisheries arms of the government and would conclude in January 2023.
“Community members across the country through our fieldwork have learned about the importance of conserving our Hawksbill Turtles and they can use the knowledge we’ve imparted to help them make informed decisions to help marine species thrive,” she said.
After completing her Master’s, Ms Prakash successfully published her research work on Hawksbill Turtles of Fiji which is now available online for interested individuals including other researchers and scholars (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235248552200007X?via%3Dihub).
Earlier this year, Ms Prakash’s work at the University earned her recognition and appointment as an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Marine Turtle Specialist.
Prakash believes that “science can contribute to good management practices of one’s natural resources and can change one’s perception about the importance of protecting marine life to ensure ocean sustainability”.
With a well-established academic and research track record, the innovative Ms Prakash hopes to give back to her community in the future and pursue more projects to help develop local communities and effect change for progress.