When a father-and-son duo denounced the slaughter of 15,000 shearwater chicks on the remote islet of Raso in 2006, they were not expecting a visit from the Cabo Verdean Prime Minister, who agreed to intervene and help protect the birds. Emboldened by this, biologist Tommy Melo and his father José founded the NGO Biosfera in 2010, with support from SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal).
It was exposure to the ocean and a passion for Cabo Verde’s sharks, sea turtles, corals, seabird colonies and reptiles that drew the Melos to a life dedicated to conservation in and around this volcanic archipelago, 600km off the coast of West Africa. “The energy that moves us,” they said, “comes from the feeling of watching a chick hatch or the return of a lost sea turtle to the sea.”
The desert islets
Biosfera initially focused on the remote Islas Desertas of Santa Luzia, Raso and Branco, where they dreamed of creating and managing a large Marine Protected Area – “a piece of Cabo Verde in the past for all to see.” They started turtle camps in 2011 and began regularly monitoring, protecting and headstarting more than 500 nests of Loggerhead Turtle (Vulnerable) as well as monitoring large colonies of the endemic Cape Verde Shearwaters (Near Threatened) and other seabirds.
Raso Lark, copyright Paul Donald, from the surfbirds galleries
If the team’s dedication is ever in doubt, consider their schedule for beach patrols, conducted every day and night from June to October: waking up at 4am, patrolling by moonlight (or red torchlight, so turtles aren’t disorientated) and taking five-hour shifts in the scorching sun, walking and monitoring nests along long stretches of beach without shade, eschewing would-be poachers.
Tommy Melo once camped out on Branco to protect nesting turtles from poachers and, when his food ran out, free-dived for fish despite the presence of sharks. Through their infectious passion and dedication, Biosfera now has a network of more than 200 volunteers. Its work also helped pass a breakthrough law against turtle poaching in 2018, which contributed to Cabo Verde reporting a record boom in turtle numbers in 2020.
Do not let this paint an ‘NGO versus local people’ picture, however, because a founding principle of Biosfera is its work with local communities in the developing nation. Most Cabo Verdeans lack boats or the opportunity to experience the wild nature of some of its uninhabited islands.
Biosfera has therefore taken it upon itself to bring nature to the people – through city exhibitions, outreach and recently a TV show – and mobilise local people to care for the environment. Out on Santa Luzia, they often have ‘teatime’ chats with fishing crews and poachers, whose attitudes have now flipped to conservation, with some even adopting nests in the turtle hatchery and helping to count bird nests.
For many years, the tiny islet of Raso was the last and only home of Raso Lark – a Critically Endangered species with a tiny, fluctuating population threatened by drought, storms and invasive species. With technical support from SPEA, a boat from Sea Shepherd and crucial funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which was willing to invest in this new, promising organisation, Biosfera was able to scope the feasibility of a reintroduction mission to expand Raso Lark’s range to Santa Luzia, a larger islet where it was historically present.
The CEPF and BirdLife support also helped Biosfera to build its capacity and management into a professional NGO capable of handling larger projects, and it became a fully fledged BirdLife partner in 2021. “Before, we were an NGO in the name,” said Tommy. “Now we are really an NGO in our laws and structure.” The ornithological training from SPEA also enabled Biosfera to turn its attention to other endemic birds and it has since used satellite tagging to discover important feeding areas of Cape Verde Shearwater.
A dream five years in the making, the ground- breaking reintroduction of Raso Lark to Santa Luzia in 2018 was a resounding success and the population continues to grow. In 2022, Isabel Fortes and Stefan Antunes were awarded a Partnership Award at the BirdLife World Congress in honour of Biosfera’s efforts to save Raso Lark from extinction, and for improving the status of Cape Verde Shearwater.
“With a new strategy for the coming decade, we continue to fight,” says new Executive Director, Nadina Rodrigues. “Biosfera is committed to combatting marine pollution, participating in the creation and management of marine protected areas and consolidating legislation for the better protection of biodiversity.”