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The film follows the perilous journey that sea turtles make to lay their eggs on their ancestral land on a beach in Kenya.
The shoreline where a green sea turtle hatches from her egg is often the same place she’ll return to nest for the first time. One such inlet is Jumba beach, which abuts the site of an old Swahili village near the bustling city of Mombasa, in southern Kenya. In the ruins of Jumba la Mtwana, crumbling homes, cisterns, and mosques offer evidence of an ancient maritime settlement that was influenced by Omani Arabs. Jumba was abandoned in the early fifteenth century for reasons that are still something of a mystery to historians, and the site was designated a national monument in 1982. But the beach just beyond one mosque remains unprotected, even though green sea turtles have nested there since time immemorial.
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“If Turtles Could Talk” is a documentary short by Juma Adero, a thirty-one-year-old filmmaker from Mombasa, who captures—in intimate detail—the perilous journey that sea turtles make to lay their eggs on their ancestral land. In the middle of the night, they heave their cumbersome bodies up the sand to dig out nests. When the tide rolls out, Jumba beach is craggy. Sea turtles can get stranded on the rocks and become easy targets for poachers, who raid nests and kill the animals for their meat. The five species found in Kenya’s waters are either endangered or critically endangered. According to one estimate, the population of green sea turtles has declined by ninety per cent in the past fifty years.
Runi Mweni Mramba is part of a team of independent conservationists whose sole mission is to protect the sea turtles on Jumba beach. He comes from a family of fishermen, and for a time he fished, too. But the sea called him in a different way. Mramba describes himself, in the film, as a “guardian for all marine life.” In an early scene, he patrols the beach in the dark holding a long-wavelength lamp that gives off a crimson glow. “We didn’t use set lighting. We were relying on the lights that we use to monitor the turtles,” Adero told me over a video chat. As he spoke, a mosquito net cast a shadow on the bare wall behind him. “You’re not allowed to use bright white lights for wildlife in the evening because it disrupts them,” he said. The cinematography of these early scenes helps viewers enter the world of the turtles that emerge at night and the conservationists who watch over them.
Daytime reveals Mramba and Jamal Abdul—a thirteen-year-old who helps preserve Jumba’s turtles—sitting in a large, concrete windowsill that overlooks the sea. Mramba coaches Abdul: “When you are at the beach, keep your eyes open . . . Pretend you are playing,” he says. “I want you to spy on them, those poachers. If you see any . . . come find me.” Abdul has worked with Mramba for a couple of years, and he has become something of a sea-turtle doula, relocating fragile nests to safer locations and burying carcasses that he finds. “They slaughtered it, put it in a bucket, and left,” Abdul says, after he sees turtle remains abandoned by hunters. “The other one had an arrow here,” he says, pointing to his collarbone. “And they chopped off its flippers.”
“If Turtles Could Talk” makes apparent the intricacies of coastal Kenyan life. A woman guts a pufferfish, which stores enough poison to kill thirty adults. It was likely caught by a local fisherman who inherited his ties to the sea. The poachers are caught up in a tangled system, too. Adero told me that there is “an expanding fish-trade industry that’s virtually unregulated.” Many trawlers live on the edge of poverty, and exotic species, even those that shouldn’t be harvested, can fetch higher prices. For some varieties, Adero told me, a fisherman might get paid the equivalent of two American dollars, and the product is exported for two thousand. Hunting and consuming sea turtles is deeply ingrained in the local culture. Some communities believe the meat is highly nutritious; others render the fat into an oil that is believed to have spiritual value. But competing human interests threaten the biodiversity of Jumba beach. The ocean “is ever present, the one constant,” Mramba says. “As humans, our time here is limited, but the ocean will be here for years to come.”