The Geo Quiz takes us to Cyprus this time.
It’s the third largest island in the Mediterranean, after Italy’s Sicily and Sardinia.
Unlike those two, Cyprus is politically divided.
38 years ago, strife between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities, a Greek-supported coup, and a Turkish invasion, all led to the partition.
The country’s capital is also divided and that’s the city we want you to name.
The answer is Nicosia.
As its human residents argue over the island’s future, Cyprus’s non-human residents often bear the brunt. In particular, sea turtles are in trouble on both sides of the island, and the political divide means Cypriots aren’t working together to protect them.
As Ari Daniel Shapiro reports, Cyprus’s political divide means that the island’s humans aren’t working together to protect them.
It’s hot in June on the west coast of Cyprus. The sun scorches from above, and the sand burns from below. Miroula Hadjichristoforou has been walking along Polis Limni beach for an hour, probing the sand with a long stick.
Suddenly, the poking pays off. “Ah!” Hadjichristoforou exclaims, “I found it! This ‘ah’ is the eggs!”
She’s found another one. A loggerhead turtle nest – a hollow in the sand, filled with eggs.
Hadjichristoforou places a cage above the nest. “This cage keeps the animals, the foxes, away,” she says. “But the babies, when they come up, they are free to go straight away to the sea. And you see, we didn’t disturb nothing.”
Hadjichristoforou’s had a long time to perfect this technique.
“We started this project in ’74,” she says, “after the Turkish invasion.”
1974 was the year Cyprus split. Turkish Cypriots living in the south evacuated to the north. And the Greek Cypriots living in the north, including Hadjichristoforou, were ordered south. Hadjichristoforou ended up helping out with a beach survey, and one day, on a beach not far from here, someone spotted a hole in the sand.
“Suddenly baby turtles started coming out,” she says. “I was so excited that – I don’t remember how long I was screaming, because I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
That was the beginning. Since then, Hadjichristoforou and her husband have been fighting to protect the nesting beaches of the two species of sea turtle native to Cyprus, loggerheads and green turtles, first for the Greek Cypriot government and these days as volunteers.
It’s often been a lonely cause. Many nesting sites in the south have been damaged by development, and many others remain threatened. But the couple has managed to protect some important beaches, and those efforts seem to be paying off—they say there are at least two times more loggerhead nests on those beaches now than just 5 years ago.
But their efforts here in the south cover only roughly half of Cyprus’s coast. And the couple says they don’t know much at all about the status of sea turtles in the north.
“It’s difficult because of the political situation to cooperate directly,” says Andreas Demetropoulos, Miroula Hadjichristoforou’s husband. Demetropoulos is the former director of Cyprus’s Department of Fisheries and Marine Research, and he says scientists on the divided island rarely work together.
“It falls back to a question of recognition. How do you cooperate with a non-existent country?”
Like most of the world, the Cyprus’s Greek sector doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Turkish sector. And that may be a problem for Cyprus’s sea turtles. The research is scant, but turtles from all around Cyprus may mingle and even interbreed. And it’s estimated that the island as a whole hosts the nesting sites of nearly 10 percent of all the Mediterranean’s loggerheads and green turtles. So each side of Cyprus is an important part of the bigger picture.
That’s why Wayne Fuller, who runs a turtle conservation and research program at the European University of Lefke in North Cyprus, in the Turkish sector, sees the lack of cooperation as a missed opportunity.
“It would be good if everyone could work together on the same issues, pooling the data.” Fuller says. “Because that would give it much stronger validity, if you can all work in the same direction, you know?”
Fuller says the north’s political isolation makes it hard to get the research funding he needs.
And it’s not just Fuller who’s looking for support.
Munur Hasimoglu has docked his small boat at a quiet pier in the northern port of Lapta. He’s the head of the fishermen’s union in northern Cyprus, and he says crews here are encountering more and more turtles.
“The turtles are getting into our nets, and they are damaging the nets,” Hasimoglu says. “We try to save their life or put them back to the sea, but it is difficult.”
The growing number of reported encounters suggests that at least some of the conservation efforts in the north are working. Still, Hasimoglu says about 800 turtles a year die from encounters with fishing boats. He adds that those encounters cost the fishermen a lot of money.
Hasimoglu says the European Union could help by paying the fishermen not to fish during turtle breeding season. But that’s not likely to happen, because the Turkish sector doesn’t belong to the E.U.
Which brings us back to the political standoff.
“Definitely it’s not a catastrophe, but it’s not the best situation for the sea turtles,” says Lily Venizelos, the president and founder of the Mediterranean turtle conservation group MEDASSET.
A recent report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggests that overall populations of both Cypriot turtle species are falling. Venizelos says a resolution to the political divide would help, but what’s urgently needed is for turtle scientists to rise above the political fray.
“The only hope is for researchers to collaborate,” she says, “because unless you know globally what’s happening in a country, how can you protect a species in the sea or on its shore?”
It’s a sentiment that resonates with Miroula Hadjichristoforou.
“This small island cannot survive divide.” Hadjichristoforou says as the sun sets over the Mediterranean, a purple sky and sea gradually fading to black. “It’s so small to divide people. They have to find a solution to live together.”
Hadjichristoforou is hopeful for a future that’s less rooted in division, and more tied to working together. She says the environment has no boundaries—something the turtles have known for a long time.
The answer to our Geo Quiz question is Nicosia.
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