A pair of New Zealand miners working in Papua New Guinea have single-handedly rescued 11 turtles destined for the cooking pot from a local market and released them back into the sea.
The exploits of Aaron Culling and co-worker Mark Machen have gone viral and the Kiwis have been deemed, conservation heroes.
It all started earlier this week when Aaron posted on Facebook that he had spotted several live sea turtles at a local market being set aside for food. He decided to buy them and set them free.
“Found these at the local market,” he wrote in a photo caption of three turtles. “Got them for 50 bucks, drove 5km up the road and let them go.”
Culling’s Facebook friends and relatives cheered him on for his act of turtle kindness and soon the story went viral. Within a day, his Facebook posting had more than 75,000 shares.
He went back to the market on subsequent days and has so far rescued 11 turtles.
“There is a local market a couple of km’s from where we are staying and we drive past it coming home from work every day. In the late afternoon, about 4 pm the fishermen come to the market to sell what they’ve caught that day and every now and then we see a turtle,” says Culling.
“On the day I took the photo we saw three there and Mark went up to the sellers and got the price down. We took them to the beach and set them free. It’s better than leaving them there to get eaten. People eat them here it’s a customary food. If they’re not sold they just go back to a village and get eaten anyway.”
Culling has been working in Bougainville for three years with a mining company, traveling back to his home in Greymouth, New Zealand to see his wife, Gayleen on his days off.
“It’s not nice to see them sitting there suffering. The little one was full of life but the big one had been there for a while and was pretty subdued. They were quite relieved to get back in the water. The little one took off but the big one was disoriented and kept coming back up the beach so Mark waded in with it and off it went.”
Asked if he was surprised his story had attracted so much attention, Culling says when he had taken the photo of Machen releasing the turtles, he did not expect for one moment it would go beyond his Facebook friends.
“It’s out of control. The next morning I had 200 friend requests and my phone was going nuts with all the alerts and messages. It’s quite amazing the power of social media,” he says.
Sea turtle fishing is still legal in Papua New Guinea, despite growing conservation efforts to bolster the population of various species. Nearly all sea turtles are listed as endangered.