TANJUNG BENOA, Indonesia — Time was running out for the green sea turtles. Four of them lay on the concrete floor of a Bali slaughterhouse, their front flippers tied together so they couldn't crawl away. Another lay on its back, unable to move.
An empty shell, still wet with blood, rested in a corner as Soleh the butcher squatted by an open fire, cooking the meat of the animal on skewers. The turtle's destination: a Hindu celebration at nearby Udayana University.
In most of the world, green sea turtles are considered endangered. Here in Bali, they are considered a moneymaker.
Despite the island's image as a tropical paradise, Bali's inhabitants slaughter more endangered sea turtles than anyone else in the world, environmentalists say, bringing the species ever closer to extinction.
The killing is especially callous--the turtles are cut apart while they are alive to make it easier to extract the meat from the shell. Like humans', the eyes of a turtle can water. While the animal is being butchered, it looks as if it's crying.
The trade in green sea turtles remains a $1-million business despite a law enacted by the Indonesian government in January 1999 making it illegal to catch, possess or eat the animals.
"It's a very old tradition, and it's very hard to change," said Ketut Sukada, a leading advocate of turtle hunting. "It's the wrong solution to stop people from eating sea turtles."
In Bali, officials created a huge loophole by allowing hunters to catch 5,000 green sea turtles a year. In practice, this meant there was no limit on the number caught because the quota was never enforced. Agus Haryanta, the top enforcement officer for turtles in Bali, estimates that the hunters catch and kill 15,000 to 20,000 a year.
Further threatening the species' survival, resort hotels and other buildings constructed in Bali during the past three decades have overrun most of the beaches where turtles once laid their eggs.
"Some people say the green sea turtle is endangered, but I don't think so," said Widja Zakaria, one of Bali's biggest turtle traders. "We try to hunt the sea turtle only in areas where there is a lot. If the numbers are declining, we move to an area where there are more."
Bali, the only Indonesian island that is predominantly Hindu, enjoys a reputation for friendliness and tranquillity. With its grand tourist resorts and international airport, it has escaped much of the violence that has rocked Indonesia in recent years. But under the surface, Bali has its share of tension.
The bloodletting elsewhere in the country has kept tourists away, and the loss of business has left some Balinese merchants desperate. The average monthly wage is less than $50, and poverty is widespread. Outside the tourist centers, villagers eke out a simple living from terraced rice paddies.
Large Turtles Mean Good Money
In coastal villages such as Tanjung Benoa, impoverished islanders believe it is their right to harvest nature's resources, whether by catching endangered sea turtles or by using explosives to kill reef fish. One large turtle can fetch the equivalent of more than two months' pay for an ordinary worker.
In fact, recent attempts by the authorities to curb the turtle trade have led to ugly clashes. In February, a mob of turtle hunters burned down the small police station in Tanjung Benoa, minutes from the major resort district of Nusa Dua. Police say they know who was responsible but haven't made any arrests out of fear for their own safety.
"Balinese are very friendly, but when there is pressure, they will fight back," said Putu Lisa, a World Wildlife Fund staff member who said she was threatened with rape if she continued to campaign for the turtles.
Much of the debate over turtle hunting revolves around religion. Balinese Hindus believe that the turtle is a sacred animal that supports the island on its back. Few, if any, of the turtle hunters are Hindus--they are mainly Muslims and Christians who come from other islands.
According to Balinese Brahman High Priest Gede Ngurah Kaleran, the Hindu religion doesn't require the killing of any turtles.
The animal's meat isn't used in Hindu rites, he says. On rare occasions, turtles are sacrificed for ceremonies and their heads are displayed to symbolize the powerful god Vishnu. But this use of turtles comes from a centuries-old mistake in translating the scriptures, he said.
In India, where the religion originated, turtles aren't sacrificed. In Bali, he says, priests could use ducks or pigs in place of turtles.
"In the Hindu religion, there is no mention of using the turtles, but of honoring the family of turtles," the priest said. "Turtle meat is not used for the religious ceremony. It's just for consumption."
Eating sea turtle is a big part of Balinese celebrations, and the Balinese are big on celebrating. The staging of elaborate ceremonies with traditional dress and sacred rites is a way of keeping Balinese culture alive in a predominantly Muslim country.