Saving sea turtles in Viet Nam 

by touching the hearts of local communities

On a sunny day in May 2016, coast guards in Quang Nam Province in Viet Nam found six endangered marine turtles caught by a local fisherman. The shiny shells of the beautiful green turtles and the rare hawksbill turtle reflected the bright sunlight. They were still alive. 

"It is illegal to catch these turtles. If you accidentally catch them, you must release them, otherwise you will be fined," said a short and broad-shouldered coast guard, throwing a dark, accusing look at the startled fisherman. 

“I had no idea that catching these turtles was forbidden,” stuttered the fisherman.

Fishermen in Viet Nam have been catching sea turtles for generations. Now, these sea turtles are endangered. Catching them is forbidden by law, yet most fishermen do not know this.

"Some fishermen catch marine turtles intentionally, while others catch them by accident. In both cases, the fishermen sell the turtles instead of releasing them. Often, they do not know that they are breaking the law. That is why raising awareness among local fishermen is a first and crucial step in protecting our sea turtles," said Mr Phung Dinh Toan, director of Ly Son Marine Protected Area. 
A hawksbill turtle seized by coast guards in Binh Son, Quang Ngai Province © Mr. Phung Dinh Toan 

In March this year, Mr Toan teamed up with IUCN Viet Nam to initiate a project aimed at raising awareness about the importance of protecting sea turtles. In the beginning, the project team considered using the standard communications tools, such as brochures.. However, the traditional way of simply presenting facts seemed to be missing the mark. The team then decided to devise a new strategy to touch the local communities on an emotional level. They need a much more effective way to change behavior, and so came up with a bold solution: why not create huge paintings of sea turtles on the houses of a fishing village? Shortly after, the 'I love the ocean/Born to be wild' project was born.

A small fishing community located on a little island in the crystal clear East Viet Nam Sea called An Binh was chosen for the daring experiment. With bright blue waters lapping at the white-sand, palm-lined beaches, the island attracts tourists, yet manages to keep a quiet, laidback feel.

Over the course of ten days, IUCN asked for volunteers, both artists and non-artists, from across the country to paint murals of species and sea turtles.

"At first, villagers did not really agree to let other people paint on their walls. But when they saw the first beautiful work of art and understood the purpose, they started to ask us to also paint their houses. In the end, we made five more murals than we had originally planned," explained Ms. Nguyen Thuy Anh - IUCN Communications and Outreach Officer.

The artists worked hard during the blazing summer heat, sometimes working deep into the night to finish on time. Each mural has a different message and touches a different emotion.

"The message of my artwork," says Thu Trang, is: 'Say no to plastic bags'. Sea turtles eat jellyfish, and often mistakenly eat plastic bags, which leads to sickness and even death. Plastic waste is a problem in An Binh, so it is a relevant message for this fishing community.” 

Thu Trang loves the project so much that she even decided to take her wedding photos in front of her art work.

Artist Ngo Thi Hai Yen chose 'Living Together' as theme of her piece: "My painting expresses the need for harmony between people, nature and species; we should live together, not destroy each other."

The final results were more than worth the effort. The villagers now consider these art pieces a part of their community. Every day, walking through the lanes of An Binh, they see the images of turtles on every corner and realise why they need to protect them. 

"I really love these colorful paintings," says Tien Loi, who lives in the village. “They spread meaningful messages. And there are still some walls suitable for a painting – If I have time, I will continue the project and make a painting myself.”

"I really love these colorful paintings.They spread meaningful messages"

"A journey from the future" mural  made by group of artists Hoai, Tuyen and Dat

Because of the effectiveness of this innovative Arts- and Community-based approach, IUCN Viet Nam will continue to work in Ly Son MPA and replicate the project in other coastal areas. Funding and support of local communities are crucial ingredients. Let us know if you can help.

The activity "I love the ocean/Born to be wild" took place during June 1st – 10th 2017 in An Binh Island, Ly Son Marine Protected Area, Quang Ngai Province as part of the “Support for community-based marine turtle nesting beach conservation and bycatch reduction in Viet Nam” project, supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

Mural "A tropical garden" by the artist Pham Linh © IUCN Viet Nam