There are only a few beaches in the world on where the giant leatherback turtle lays its eggs. The leatherback is the fourth largest reptile and the largest ever found was over three metres long from head to tail. It is believed that the critically endangered species only nests in two locations in Indonesia – in Tambrauw, near Sorong and Raja Ampat (both locations are in West Papua). I decided to take a visit to the lesser known beach in Raja Ampat and discovered that the remote village of Yenbekaki was preserving more than just these ancient giants of the sea. The village was truly awe-inspiring; not only had they protected their local culture and traditions, they had also protected their coral reefs from the destructive practices of a nearby mining company.
As we arrived on the shore, a kind, elderly man led us up to his house where we took refuge from the storm of rain that had suddenly unleashed itself. He was Bapak Agustinus Mayor and he worked for the organisation Conservation International (CI), which has many conservation posts positioned strategically throughout Raja Ampat. CI is a pioneering organisation in identifying biodiversity hotspots across the world and then protecting these irreplaceable habitats; some of Indonesia’s richest and most important ecosystems are considered hotspots and many locations in Raja Ampat have been identified. We rested with a warm cup of tea and asked Agustinus about the leatherbacks which laid their eggs on the nearby beach of Warebar with its 2.5 km of sand.
“In the past, people from Raja Ampat used to come and steal the eggs and hunt the turtles nesting there because they were easy prey. Even the hawksbills were consumed. But ever since Yenbekaki and Conservation International started the post, the number of turtles nesting there began to increase every year. When we first started, only two leatherbacks appeared per month. Now, we can have leatherbacks almost every night after five years of protection,” explained Agustinus.
Feeling enthusiastic, we asked Agustinus if we could visit the beach and he smiled and shook his head. “The breeding season for the leatherback starts in March and ends in August. Same with the hawksbill. The olive ridley turtle starts first in February, once the olive ridley starts, then the leatherback begins. The leatherback turtles like the beach because the waves are strong and there is no coral reef – it has a sandy bottom. They always return to the beach on which they were born.”
We were just a few weeks early! Sensing our disappointment, Agustinus’ daughter showed us some photos of the hatchlings from their breeding program. “We also keep some of the eggs to hatch, to enable the turtles to reach maturity and survive without predation. Predators include wild boar, sea birds which know the season of the hatching, monitor lizards and also humans. Saltwater crocodiles seen near the beach can be predators of the turtles.”
The rain had started to subside and I could see a distinct pattern in the sea – half of the ocean was now dyed brown. One of the villagers on the beach noticed my gaze and explained that a nickel mining company had loosened the land and caused run-off; whenever it rained, soil could be seen in the seawater. The soil and chemical pollution began to destroy the coral reefs and because of the protests and blockades, the company stopped mining.
We decided to take a walk through the village. Artwork adorned every crevice – each house had a painted entranceway and the artwork often depicted traditional symbols such as the koreri. Some of the paintings depicted their ancestors from ancient times and their mythologies. “This is to remember our heritage and our roots,” explained Agustinus. “The government asked us if we would like concrete pavements but we said no – we prefer sand so that we can yosim.” Yosim is a traditional Papuan dance involving musical instruments which are played for long hours as the locals circulate the village. In fact, the village had no phone reception, internet or even public electricity, but it felt more alive than some of the other villages I had seen in Raja Ampat. The people of Yenbekaki seemed so confident, so secure in their place in the universe. They did not have that look in their eyes of ‘is the grass greener over there?’ which seems to be sweeping across the connected globe.
I wanted to find out more about their ancient culture and I was invited by a man called Alex, who had long dreadlocks, to visit the community house that evening. I ventured in shyly, it was dark and we used candles. A man with strong eyes and a big afro was sat on the floor and he hesitated before welcoming us into the circle. “This is where we play music every night,” explained Alex who then proceeded to show me the triton shells which were played like trumpets. In the circle of musicians, a huge guitar, maracas and a tifa made from the skin of the monitor lizard were now being played. “We are in a band called Sanggar Sarak Yenbekaki,” explained Alex. “Sometimes the Raja Ampat government sponsors us to do tours throughout Java and Jakarta. We also perform at the Waisai annual cultural festival every October.” I later discovered that they had performed with the American musician Arrington de Dionyso in East Java, in a combination of experimental jazz and traditional Papuan music.
That evening we ate warm rice and vegetable soup in Agustinus’s house and shared stories. The moon was full and we wandered onto the beach. The only shop in the village sold mie goreng and sweets and I was glad that we had brought vegetables with us on our trip. I was astonished by how much the villagers didn’t have on this island, but I was also amazed by their determination to keep their culture and to protect their coral reefs and the sacred marine life that they seemed to worship. The richness of Yenbekaki village was hidden – every grain of sand was a pathway towards something ancient and big.