David Olendo's passion for sea turtles


David Olendo, a marine conservationist. PHOTO | POOL

You have not lived a difficult life until you have lived the life of a sea turtle. Eggs are abandoned by their mother, left to the behest of predators like birds, crabs, and poachers. 

Once hatched and crawling into the sea, they face more perilous challenges; stalked by octopuses, sharks, speedboats, pollution, and diseases. Only one in 1,000 hatchlings end up making it to maturity. 

For the past 30 years, David Olendo, a marine conservationist has been on an ambitious effort to conserve sea turtles at Serena Mombasa’s beachfront.

He incubates the eggs in nesting sites at the hotel which has been a traditional hatching site for sea turtles. Together with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), they have also replicated the same efforts in other remote beaches in Kijipwa, and Kikambala.

About 25 fishermen are part of the conservation of sea turtles. Last week, Serena Mombasa released 90 hatchlings into the sea bringing the total to 2,000 this year and over 85,000 since they started the project in 1993.       

Mr Olendo, an honorary warden, had a chat with JACKSON BIKO.


Was there ever a time that it was easy to be a sea turtle?

Sadly no. Their problems begin when they are just eggs because there’s no parental care after that. The eggs remain unprotected. The first problem the hatchlings will face is to come out of the eggshell buried below. And then comes the crawling to the sea which is dangerous. Ghost crabs, seagulls, heroines, and Ibis eat them.

When they finally make it in the water they have to survive more predators and human activities. Some species feed on jellyfish so they confuse plastic bags for jellyfish. They eat them and it blocks their digestive tracts causing death. They also get cancerous tumors that block their eyes and noses.

The hotel stopped lighting the beachside with floodlights at night because that disorients turtles. They tend to come towards artificial light putting themselves too close to predators. So there are many odds to beat as a turtle.

How can you get somebody sitting in an office, on a Zoom call, to care about the plight of turtles?

[Pause] Some turtle species are already extinct. We have to address the issue of plastic pollution and fishing. We can donate towards these activities.

For instance, we have people who patrol the beach at night to make sure that the eggs laid at night are safe and protected. Also, the locals need incentives to help in conservation.

The hotel donates chest freezers for storing fish, and in return, the fishermen become scouts who help us locate nesting sites but also protect these animals. Now with Covid, things have been more difficult.

You come from Nyanza, by a freshwater body. Where did this fascination with sea turtles come from?

We have tortoises in the lake that are related to the turtles. They come from the same class if you read the evolution story. My fascination started from childhood. I remember playing with a tortoise in a small stream in Siaya. I’d feed it vegetables or tomatoes. When I came to the Coast, it was so fascinating to find their cousins that nest on their beaches.

The more I learned about them, the more I discovered that they are endangered. So I wanted to do something about their plight and see if I can contribute to their survival.

How are we as humans and turtles alike?

[Long pause] Turtles lay eggs and move on. They don’t come back to check on their eggs. They are irresponsible parents. Some humans are like that as well. A man who impregnates a lady and disappears, never knows what happened to his child. Or people who abandon their babies.

Is this your purpose in life or there could be more to discover?

I think it’s my purpose. When I’m not doing my normal job, I’m patrolling the beach, checking the nests, or educating people. I started when I was a young boy, now I’m an old man, I’ve never given up. Now I have been appointed by Kenya Wildlife Services as an honorary warden, just because of my work. It’s a moment of pride, which means I’m doing something important.

What's been your lowest moment of turtle conservation?

On two occasions, in a place called Bofa, Kilifi and in Kikambala, I found fishermen slaughtering a turtle. I used to hear such stories but I’d never seen it myself. I was so devastated, I felt like I had lost a child. I remember when I went home I was distressed. My wife thought I had lost a relative, and indeed that’s how it felt. The person was arrested and sentenced to two years in jail.

What do you think is your talent?

[Chuckle] I’m a very good educator. I have many people who have passed through my hands, and right now are in very senior positions. I have mentored students from here and abroad on turtle conservation and environmental issues and they are very successful in what they are doing. You can’t do this job if you are not compassionate, if you don’t feel for something that isn’t you.

What have you learnt about yourself during these 30 years of conserving turtles?

Life is difficult but there is always a way. I have learnt that the most fulfilling thing you do is one that gives you great satisfaction. I feel satisfied that I’ve made a difference. Every time I release a hatchling into the water, I feel like I have contributed to something bigger than me. I mean, I don’t have anyone doing an appraisal or evaluating what I’m doing, but I feel that I’ve done something towards the bigger effort. We can’t focus on big things when we can’t do small things like this that contribute to the global effort.

What's your day job?

I worked at Haller Park for 13 years as an environmental education officer, before moving to the industrial space where I am a resource recovery coordinator where I have been for the last 19 years. Next month I’ll be retiring from active employment after 32 years.

Does retirement come with a certain level of anxiety for you?

No. I’ll be free to do more things that I could not do when I was in active employment. I will definitely be in conservation here and back in the village. I’m thinking of starting a fish farm and a crocodile farm for educational purposes, so that children can learn about the habits of crocodile and aquaculture.

Have you led a good life?

Yes. Good life, for me, is having good health and a good family. My wish was to see my children through university. Two have finished university, one is in college and the last is in high school. My joy will be when they start working.

It must be very daunting when you educate your children then they lack work?

I’ve trained my children not to focus on being employed. You need something you can do that brings food to the table. What can you do? What are you good at that you can capitalise on? Can you cook? Or bake? Or weave? Or paint?