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Wildlife conservation a priority for remote Air Force base

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Bates
  • Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
Ascension Auxiliary Airfield, a small base belonging to a detachment of Air Force Space Command's 45th Space Wing here, is constantly facing invasion. 

But the invaders aren't foreign soldiers coming to claim the island for their own. Instead, they are green, scaly creatures from the sea. And, every year, thousands of these creatures storm the island's beaches. 

And, every year, the small base welcomes them with open arms. 

"We love our sea turtles," said Frances Dixon, head of environmental engineering on the base. "This is one of the few places they come ashore in the whole world." 

The reason for this invasion is simple. It's the only way the sea turtles can survive. 

Every year around November or December, thousands of the large, green, ocean-dwelling turtles travel thousands of miles here from the coast of Brazil where they normally live. Ascension Island is located in the South Atlantic Ocean, between Brazil in South America and Cameroon in Africa. 

Once in the water surrounding the island, the turtles mate and the impregnated females come ashore to lay their eggs in nests they dig along the island's beaches. During the height of mating season, hundreds of females will come ashore each night, with each one laying anywhere from 100 to 200 eggs. 

But, despite these large numbers, the green sea turtle is fast approaching extinction. The turtles are hunted for their meat and their eggs and fishing nets, boat propellers and encroachment are all rapidly declining the turtles' numbers. 

Even the hatchlings are not immune to predation. Once born, the hatchlings must find their way to the ocean, the whole time being scavenged by land crabs, birds and various fish that lie in wait at the water's edge. 

It is estimated that only one in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to maturity, said Ms. Dixon.

"So, Ascension Island is literally one of the last unspoiled places the turtles have left," she said. 

To make sure this doesn't change, the Ascension Island government and the AAF's environmental team have worked together for several years to protect the turtles and ensure their nesting is not disturbed. 

The turtles even have their own set of rules on the island. Flashlights are prohibited on the beaches when sea turtles are present, no one is allowed to approach a female turtle until she has started laying her eggs and vehicles have to park with their headlights facing away from the beach. 

"Bright lights can either scare the turtle back into the water or confuse it so it doesn't know where it's going," Ms. Dixon said. 

Still, the environmental team knows the best way to protect the turtles is not through a bunch or rules, but through education. 

"People usually won't respect something until they understand it," Ms. Dixon said. "So we just try to educate people on how important the sea turtles are and why it's so important they are able to nest here." 

One way the island's environmental and conservation teams educate the public are through "turtle hunting" tours. A turtle conservation specialist will take small groups of people out to one of the island's beaches either late at night or early in the morning to see if they can spot any females coming ashore to lay eggs. The tour guides show the group the safe way to interact with the sea turtles and explain the nesting process. 

"It has really been quite a successful program," Ms. Dixon said. 

This success has led to a great relationship between the people on the island and the sea turtles. The turtles are a revered annual visitor, and everyone, including those on the U.S. airfield, appreciate how important these endangered sea creatures are.

"It is exciting to see this base operate in a 'green' environment day-to-day," said Maj. Jay Block, commander of Detachment 2, 45th Operations Group on the island.  "It is cost effective and at the same time, protects our environment without interfering with any of our various missions down here. Going 'green' has actually helped us become more efficient providing power and water to the air field and the base."