The news passed quietly, but not without significance. I heard that a wounded and weakened loggerhead sea turtle washed ashore on the rocky Farmakonisi Island in the Aegean Sea, where it lay for several days slowly losing its strength.
Soon after, at the same isolated beach, a few hundred souls fleeing persecution and violence washed ashore after their boat capsized. Turtle and stranded refugees met each other there, exhausted from their long journeys.
The refugees had suffered their own losses, while the turtle was weakened and suffering hypothermia from the wintry waters. When another boat arrived to carry the people to safety on the island of Leros, media reports say the turtle went with them.
At Leros their paths separated.
The sea turtle pictured at the Archelon Sea Turtle Rescue Centre in Athens on Sunday, January 31. Credit: Alex Vamvakoulas / Greenpeace
After receiving first aid from a veterinarian, the turtle was airlifted off Leros by the Greek national airline, queue jumping long transport delays as a strike disrupted the sea ferry service.
Now housed at the Archelon Sea Turtle Rescue Centre in Athens, it is hoped that the turtle will find itself safely back to the Mediterranean Sea. She will be housed in warm waters, given medical care and released in April or May.
“It’s amazing. The story I heard was that people who didn’t know whether they would be alive tomorrow helped this animal. At other times these turtles are simply harmed by people,” said Polymnia Nestoridou at the sea turtle rescue centre.
Days later, I do not know where the turtle’s temporary companions are. Mainly Afghans seeking safety, I am also unsure where their journey will take them.
As a young man in Greece, I spent many years working with others to ensure that wildlife achieved the recognition it deserved, to guarantee protection for endangered species and to create protected areas for loggerhead sea turtles, such as the Marine Park of Zakynthos.
Circulars, ministerial decisions and presidential decrees emerged to provide legal and administrative protection for wildlife. Proudly, I watched a dream come true as Greece, the country with the biggest nesting population of sea turtles in the Mediterranean, established a specialised rehabilitation centre.
I saw collaborations with port authorities and airline companies, veterinarians and other specialists. Volunteers from around the world worked together to save the loggerhead. I feel proud to have played a role and believe it was a step forward for humanity, and our country in particular.
I never imagined that one day an injured turtle would have a place on a plane while traumatised people would be left out in the cold, rain and snow, or behind some barbed wire in the midst of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
Today’s reality surpasses my understanding and I imagine it surpasses everyone’s understanding. Some people have fewer rights and opportunities than some animals.
As I help oversee a joint operation between Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Greenpeace to rescue refugees at sea off the coast of Lesbos, I know that there are many questions we simply cannot answer alone.
I believe we mustjoin our knowledge and forces together: environmental, development and humanitarian organisations, and every active citizen. We need to propose answers to the dilemmas that call us to choose between wildlife, growth and people.
I hope that the loggerhead sea turtle of Farmakonisi will have good health. I also wish a safe passage and a safe destination for the refugees who helped rescue it.
Occasions like this offer an opportunity to stop for a while, to take a breath, to rethink where are we going.
I am trying to find a combination of pieces to solve a puzzle called ‘better life for all’. This is not an equation that one can solve alone. I do not have the answers, but that is no reason to stop trying.
Nikos Charalambides is the Executive Director of Greenpeace Greece and a member of the Marine Turtles Specialists Group (MTSG) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
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