Above: A green sea turtle – one of the protected species native to the Hawaiian Islands. Photo credit: Merril McCauley, 2015.

As I stepped off the plane into the warm night air of Kona, I was looking forward to a much needed week of R&R, coffee tasting and snorkeling. Before flying to Kona – and after, for that matter – I had never traveled for a reason unrelated to research, so the trip was my first real vacation. It was everything you would expect of a typical vacation in Hawaii: long days on the beach, endless swimming, fresh ahi tuna and sunburns. And the sea life was marvelous.

Hawaii has three native species of turtles, all of which are listed as endangered. By the state’s conservation policy, humans may not disturb the turtles in any way, including crowding and touching. These laws are meant to protect the turtles against the abuse that led their species to be threatened in the first place – namely, excessive hunting and poaching. It also prevents the poking, prodding and general disturbance that might otherwise be administered by curious tourists. Given the circumstances, the laws sound perfectly logical. But on an evening beach walk half way through the trip, I had to break them.

I left our hotel room that evening to get some quiet time for reflection, so I wandered out alone, enjoying the evening sun. As the light was fading, I discovered a group of sea turtles laying placidly on the beach, so I sat down some distance away and enjoyed the last peaceful moments of the day. While observing one of the turtles beside me, I noticed something strange about the folds of skin on its neck. When I crept closer, I could see that it had fishing line wrapped in loops around its neck and both shoulders. The turtle was intimidated by my presence and began to inch away, but it could not move swiftly because it was already partially immobilized. I felt such empathy for this creature, it would have felt like a crime to leave it in such a condition.

The process wasn’t graceful. The turtle struggled – after all, I could have been a predator – and I grabbed the dorsal posterior knob of its shell (called the nuchal shell) to hold it in place with one hand while unwinding the fishing line with the other. And the turtle was strong! Despite its flapping, I completely disentangled it within several minutes. While it shuffled off into the water, I pocketed the bits of line so the incident wouldn’t be repeated with another unsuspecting creature.

I have reflected on this incident on several occasions. Does it make sense for an act of compassion to be illegal? Would the turtle really have been better off if I had left it alone? Should I have called the wildlife hotline instead? Early on, I came to the conclusion that this was a prime example of a broken system – a policy that was meant to protect, but could itself instead lead to harm. This is a problem with policies across many disciplines – they are essentially sets of idealized rules that must be strictly defined, lest they be misinterpreted. This means that the rules and conditions within the policy can be poor reflections of the true complexity of the world, and in some circumstances, they just don’t work. But the more I reflect, the more I think that there is a deeper lesson as well.

The “no touching sea turtles” policy is inherently very strict. It was meant to be that way. I think – and these are only my opinions – that if they were intended to be more flexible, there was room for simple conditions to be added. The fact that there are not is perhaps not an example of a broken system, but of a simple loss of privilege. By this I mean, based on our actions in the past, we can no longer be trusted to determine what kind of contact is and is not acceptable. We had that privilege once, and we hunted and exploited the turtles to the point of threatening the species’ very existence.

This may remind you of another case of seemingly questionable conservation policies that has been given substantial media attention: the lion hunter. You might have heard that in July 2015, Walter Palmer paid $50,000 US to hunt and killed a male lion in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – the country’s largest game reserve. Palmer has suffered an enormous amount of public backlash, even though he claims to have always acted within the law. Does this mean that there’s something wrong with Zimbabwe’s conservation policies?

A blurry shot but an awesome lion sighting on a night game drive in Kenya. Photo credit: Anne-Marie Hodge, 2014.

Let’s analyze the situation. The idea of being able to hunt and kill large animals in a game reserve probably seems foreign to most Westerners. Isn’t it the reserve’s duty to protect the inhabitants, rather than allow them to be killed? Normally, I would say yes, but there is another part of the equation: money. Conservation and awareness programs need funding in order to operate; game reserves require maintenance and poaching guards while awareness programs need educators. The price Palmer paid to hunt is one example of a significant source of funding for these programs, and has popularly been called “killing for conservation.” It is tempting to lay blame on hunters, but more often than not, they value their game far more than the average person; after all, if game populations are knocked down, the hunters lose their sport. And by paying large sums of money into conservation programs, their hunt is actually benefiting the hunted as a whole.

Not all conservancies rely on hunting licences for funding. Ol’Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy, where this photo was taken, operates based on tourism and agricultural profit. Photo credit: Anne-Marie Hodge, 2014.

Contrary to first impressions, the conservation policies in Sub-Saharan Africa are well-developed and mature. Particularly when compared to our misguided idea of conservation in North America (“Oh, the caribou are dying? Time to cull the wolves!”), but that is a whole other blog post. . .