Hakai Magazine

Sea turtle conservationist Doyinsola Ogunye
Rakes in hand, Doyinsola Ogunye prepares to comb the sand of plastic debris at Kids Beach Garden in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo by Chike Okolo

Coastal Job: Sea Turtle Protector

Not long ago, Doyinsola Ogunye didn’t know Nigeria had sea turtles—now she’s their most dedicated savior.

Authored by

As told to Wana Udobang

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

In 2009, lawyer turned conservationist Doyinsola Ogunye created an NGO called Kids Beach Garden to clean up the shorelines of Lagos, Nigeria. But in March, the focus of her work shifted to rescuing sea turtles from poachers.

I founded Kids Beach Garden when I was 27 years old. I employ 23 full-time staff, and together we pick up litter from the beach, sort through what’s recyclable or biodegradable, and teach kids to do the same.

Then one day, out of nowhere, someone from the public reached out and said they’d found a turtle on the street. Like many people in Nigeria, I didn’t even know we had turtles. My team and I bought the turtle and released it back into the ocean. Often now, we get distress calls from well-meaning individuals who see poachers hawking turtles on the streets in Lagos.

Sometimes people ask, “Why are you saving sea turtles instead of hungry people?” But just because people are hungry doesn’t mean they should do things that are wrong. We have laws to protect marine life, so you can’t justify killing, selling, and eating wildlife. We need to know we are not the only ones on this planet.

But sadly, the laws are not enforced. People kill sea turtles for food or sell their parts to Chinese customers or locals who want them for various ritual purposes. Poachers want money, and for a very long time I paid them to release turtles. After a while, I realized it had become a form of extortion. I had to stop because it became counterproductive.

Sometimes when we find turtles captured by poachers their eyes are bulging with stress. There used to be nowhere to provide care before we released them. That’s what prompted me to start the Sea Turtle Sanctuary at the Kids Beach Garden learning center in March. It’s a place where people can learn about turtles and their importance to the marine ecosystem, and we can give the turtles a chance to recover. Most of the time the turtles have sustained minor injuries but are strong enough to make it on their own in the wild after about 24 hours. If they’re too weak, we keep them for up to 48 hours and call on vets to care for them. Though we receive funding from local and international donors and grants, we can’t afford and simply don’t have the facilities to hold the turtles any longer.

Since we started, we have saved over 40 turtles from poachers, mostly olive ridleys and leatherbacks.

I remember when poachers brought a beautiful leatherback to the Kids Beach Garden. They wanted five-million naira (US $13,000) for the turtle. I told them I had no money and suggested we put the turtle back in the water. It was pandemonium. They started shouting; there were over 50 men waiting to be paid. We ended up negotiating for four hours. Meanwhile, I put the video of what was happening on social media, where it went viral. Eventually, they let the turtle go without payment.

Sometimes I feel like Superwoman. I can be going about my day as normal when suddenly a picture surfaces on social media, people tag me, phone calls start coming in, and I find myself getting into an Uber to look for a turtle. People think I’m weird. Because I trained as a lawyer, they ask, “Why aren’t you practicing law?” I tell them: I’m defending turtles.