We will fight them on the beaches ...

Tourism and conservation are at loggerheads on an idyllic Greek island, writes Chas Walton

Next week, Greece faces an unprecedented embarrassment over the beaches of Zakynthos, southernmost of the Ionian Islands, which attract a quarter of a million holiday-making Britons each year.

Unless it acts before 22 January, the Greek government will be arraigned for breaches of the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. The Council of Europe alleges that Greece has failed to protect the interests of the other visitors to Zakynthos. Each year, an average of 800 loggerhead turtles come to nest on the 10km of sand that ring Laganas Bay. The turtles are an endangered species and the beaches are a breeding site unique in Europe.

In the latest twist of a 15-year struggle to control Laganas Bay, if the Greek government does not protect the turtles' nesting beaches, under Article 18 of the Bern Convention, the Council of Europe will appoint an outside arbiter to determine how the beaches should be run and managed. No conservation case has ever been put to arbitration before.

Zakynthos is the glorious, wish-you-were-here setting for one of the nastiest ecological battles in Europe. A coalition of Greek conservation groups is campaigning to get Laganas Bay declared a national marine park. Should that happen, many seafront traders will lose their livelihoods. In the face of mounting pressure from the Council of Europe and, belatedly, from the Greek government, the political tide is turning against the profiteers.

After Libya, Zakynthos plays host to the largest breeding population of loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean. They come for the sheltered waters, hot sun, soft sands and gentle slope - exactly what we look for when we flick through the brochures in our local travel agent. But turtles like their beaches quiet. The noise and paraphernalia of a contemporary Mediterranean holiday are incompatible with their reproductive needs. Parasol spikes destroy nests, disco lights disorient the hatchlings and speedboats kill the adults.

Environmentalists took up the sea turtles' cause in the early Eighties and met with fierce opposition from some locals. They lit night-time bonfires on the beaches, took pot-shots at those who sought to protect the turtles, and have been threatening, beating and burning ever since.

In 1986 the case came before the Council of Europe's Conservation Standing Committee and has been raised at every subsequent meeting. The loggerhead turtle is listed as endangered under the Bern Convention. This puts a duty on European states to protect it, yet the Greek authorities have been reluctant to intervene. A series of protective measures were enacted but the political will to enforce them was lacking.

"Most Greeks are in favour of conservation," says Lily Venizelos, president of Medasset (Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtle), "but the government can't afford to upset the Zakynthians. The turtles have become a political football."

The task of turtle protection fell to others. Daniel Caute and Caroline Harris are unpaid volunteers for the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece (STPS). They spend their summers scanning the sands for potential turtle hazards, advising unsuspecting tourists on turtle protection and smoothing out the remains of the previous day's sandcastles.

Their patch is Gerakas Beach, a middle-class holiday destination where the tourists respond positively to their approaches. The toughest part of the job is negotiating with the men who control the illegal beach parasols. As no one is willing or able to remove them, Daniel and Caroline have to work with the parasol vendors to secure the turtles' best interests. Some vendors are more accommodating than others, but only so far as it does not harm business.

Despite spending so much time on the beaches, Daniel and Caroline rarely see live turtles. All the real action happens at night while the beaches are out of bounds. When on land, female turtles are sensitive to the least disturbance. Caroline recalled a clear, moonlit night when she watched an egg-laying turtle from the cliffs above. Then a courting couple walked along the beach and the turtle abandoned her mission. "She just freaked out," says Caroline.

But the STPS and other pressure groups have at last begun to halt the decline in turtle numbers. On nearby Daphni Beach, where volunteers were stoned the year before, the illegal tavernas have been closed with a consequent doubling in nests. A new, six-knot speed restriction on power boats has effectively stopped watersports in Laganas Bay. And the ban on night flights into Kalamaki airport is enforced so rigidly that in June a planeload of Britons was delayed for 24 hours at Manchester. As a result, 1995 recorded the highest number of turtle nests for many years.

Then one evening in late September, a few hours after the last British tourists had vacated the illegal sunbeds on Laganas Bay, a bomb ripped through the offices of Nikos Lykouresis's architectural practice. Mr Lykouresis is a founder member of the Zakynthian Ecological Movement and his offices double as their headquarters. However, he is unworried by the the violence. "I'm too old for that," he says.

The conservationists believe that ultimately they are winning. Dimitrios Dimopoulos, field co-ordinator for the STPS, believes the forces in favour of the national marine park are now unstoppable.

The Greek Minister of the Environment has finally declared that there will be a park, regardless of the political cost. But last year, for the first time, the local prefecture was elected rather than appointed and elected prefects have proved more reluctant than appointed ones to rock the political boat. The government proposals for a marine park have been countered by another from the Laganas Bay communities, and by a third from environmental groups. The result has been further delays. The Prefectural Council decided on 1 October not to adopt the government plan but to undertake its own management study.

Outside intervention now seems inevitable. The Council of Europe is becoming increasingly nervous that failure to protect the turtles is making a mockery of the Bern Convention. In 1986, the Standing Committee asked for the buildings and tavernas on Daphni Beach to be demolished. They still stand today, nine years after the committee's first request.

The conservationists are already gearing up for arbitration. Lily Venizelos has a team of international lawyers on standby to ensure that Greece honours its obligations. "If I didn't think we could do it," she says, "I'd pack up, go home and be a good grandmother."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence