May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Turtle satay?

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Jenny H. Bäckström

Sunbathing tourists having lunch, enjoying manicures, buying watches, toe rings, sarongs or huge wooden dragons. Local women chanting offers of massages, pineapples and plaited hair. These are the regular actors in the daily scene of legendary Kuta beach in Bali.

But one day in March this year the atmosphere and the people on Kuta beach seemed somewhat different. It was a little quieter than usual, a little more in awe of life. A crowd of about 100 curious locals and tourists stood gathered around to see 130 green turtles assembled outside the beach security office. The turtles had holes in their front flippers for the ropes that tied them together. They had been confiscated by the Bali Sea Police off the coast of Tanjung Benoa during a raid on a boat arriving from south eastern Sulawesi on the morning of 10 March.

The turtles had been destined to become satay or lawar (a Balinese ceremonial dish of meat and blood mixed with various spices and coconut) on the black market in Tanjung Benoa. Now, they were awaiting their release back to sea instead. ‘In Kuta, people’s livelihoods are based on tourism, so it is safe to release the turtles here,’ said the head of the Kuta Beach Security Patrol, I Gusti Ngurah Tresna.

The turtle trade

Indonesian waters are inhabited by six of the world’s seven sea turtle species. The green turtle and the hawksbill are the two most common species in Indonesia, and also the most popular for trade — the green turtle for its meat, and the hawksbill for its shell. The trade in turtles reached a peak in 1978 when as many as 30,000 turtles were reported to have arrived in Tanjung Benoa. By the mid 1990s this had declined to just over 20,000.

Together with rapid beach development and destructive fishing methods, the trade led to an estimated 40-80 per cent decline in turtles nesting in the Indo-Australasian region, according to WWF Bali, which has been actively campaigning to stop the turtle trade for more than a decade.

Together with rapid beach development and destructive fishing methods, the trade led to an estimated 40-80 per cent decline in turtles nesting in the Indo-Australasian region, according to WWF Bali, which has been actively campaigning to stop the turtle trade for more than a decade. Enormous international pressure was put on the Indonesian government during the Conference on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). As a result of this, most species of turtles were gradually given protected status under national law between 1978 and 1996.

Finally, in 1999 the green turtle, too, was protected under article 21 of Act No. 5/1999, which legislates to protect and conserve natural resources and ecosystems. The law states that the catching, storing, transporting, and trading of all turtle species, turtle products and turtle eggs is prohibited. But even though the trade in turtles has decreased, turtle consumption continues. The numbers may be smaller, but turtles from all over Indonesia are still available on the black market in southern Bali. Most of these turtles are caught in Eastern Indonesia, and transported to Bali in boats staffed by poor Sumbawans and captained by Bugis, Butonese and others.

Many people, especially Western tourists, regard the sea turtle trade as shocking. They know that some turtle species are close to extinction. The turtle slaughter in Bali, as depicted by Greenpeace in their 1990 campaign ‘Slaughter in Paradise’, seems barbaric. Perhaps more importantly, turtles are cute. However, the practice of eating turtles goes back centuries. In areas around Denpasar, Benoa, Sanur, Serangan, Kuta, and Nusa Dua, locals defend turtle consumption on customary law and religious grounds. Turtles also provide a significant source of income for some Balinese, because a significant proportion of the catch is not consumed in Bali, but on-sold to Hong Kong for turtle soup and other delicacies.

These ceremonial and economic reasons for continuing the turtle trade have been repeatedly raised, especially in Tanjung Benoa. In 1990, the governor of Bali set a quota of 5000 green turtles to restrict the hunting of this species, which was still permitted under national law. At the time, Tanjung Benoa was the only port officially permitted to handle the turtle trade. ‘It was not realistic to place a total ban on the turtle trade without providing people with an alternative source of income,’ said leader of the Turtle Conservation Team of Tanjung Benoa, Ir. Ketut Sukada. But the number of turtle traders and fishermen in Benoa has decreased significantly in the last few years as a result of stricter law enforcement and the decline in turtle numbers.

Consumption or conservation?

The turtle is a sacred animal in Balinese mythology. In Hindu philosophy the turtle symbolises the foundation supporting the earth and all its life. The world turtle, Bedawang Nala, is believed to dwell in the underworld, where it carries the world on its back. Whether this significance justifies turtle sacrifice and consumption, as has been customary in southern Bali, has become contentious.

The Kuta community is not directly involved in the capture and trade in turtles. However, Kuta is one of the places in Bali with a tradition of consuming turtles on ceremonial occasions.

Ida Pedanda Gede Ngurah Kaleran, a high priest of southern Denpasar, believes it is not necessary to use turtles in religious ceremonies. ‘Nowhere in the holy book of Veda is it stated that we should eat turtle,’ he said, adding that a symbol could be used instead of the real animal to complete the ceremony. However, many others feel that turtles are needed both for the religious and social aspects of religious ceremonies. For sacrificial offering in a middle level ceremony, as little as one portion of lawar is needed. For high level ceremonies, the turtle head is offered. It has been estimated that no more than 300 turtles would be required for ritual purposes in Bali each year. The number of turtles exceeding this figure is generally for social consumption at ceremonies rather than ritual use.

But attitudes regarding turtle consumption are slowly changing in Kuta, and the use of turtle in ceremonial food has been declining. The adat (traditional) leader of the Kuta I district, Gusti Ketut Sudira, said: ‘We like to see God as another individual, like us. We adjust the offerings to what we like ourselves. But what we like or appreciate sometimes changes.’

Now, approximately half of Kuta’s 13 banjar (communities) have decided against using turtles in ceremonies. According to the deputy adat leader Ketut Nugra, this signals a change in attitudes and values about what is important in life.

When asked why turtles were being used less, locals commented that the preparation of turtle ‘took up too much time’. Aside from the time-saving convenience, the change was in line with adat principles requiring a harmonious relationship between people and nature. Many now also acknowledge that this relationship has been disturbed through excessive exploitation of turtles. ‘We have to keep the balance between the worldly and the spiritual life,’ Nugra said. Even so, turtles are still used for the less frequently held mid to high level ceremonies. Several local women told me that they still use turtle lawar in ceremonies every six months.

Since 2002, a turtle conservation program has been operating at Kuta Beach. It is supported by the local traditional community (desa adat), the environmental organisation ProFauna Indonesia and the government conservation authority (BKSDA).

The program was developed after a nesting turtle was noticed by beach security staff the previous year. At that time the desa adat had not yet developed a plan for protecting turtles, which had virtually disappeared from Bali’s southern beaches. Some people wanted to eat the turtle, but the community had decided to protect everything on the beach, so the turtle was eventually put back out to sea. The Kuta community is now discussing ways to strengthen protection for these highly endangered species.

Open to change

The deputy adat leader Ketut Nugra suggested that the people around Kuta are perhaps more open to change and more aware than people in many other parts of Bali because of their long exposure to tourism and the rapid changes and developments it has brought. Virtually all Kuta households are directly or indirectly involved in the tourism sector. The old fishers of Kuta now make more money using their boats for taking surfers out to Kuta Reef than from the traditional livelihood of fishing. In Kuta, where ‘livelihoods are based on tourism’, saving Kuta’s turtles could arguably also mean saving its image and economy.

üOn Saturday 22 May 100 baby turtle hatchlings — the first to have hatched on Kuta Beach this year — were released. Locals and tourists, children and elderly residents, beach security staff and village leaders, beamed as they opened their hands and let ‘their’ turtle go. The Kuta Beach program shows that tourism and conservation can go hand in hand: many of the tourists who helped release the turtles said the experience would be one of the best memories of their Bali holiday.

Jenny H. Bäckström ( is an Honours student at the University of Western Australia.

Inside Indonesia 80: Oct - Dec 2004

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