14/12/2023

When the past becomes a lighthouse for the future

Thomas Arapis, the President of ARCHELON and one of its founding members, talks about the first years and the people who put their mark on the establishment and further course of the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. Read the first part of his speech at the event celebrating the 40 years of ARCHELON, held in Athens on November 8, 2023.

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The quality and values, the important elements that marked the creation and subsequent course of ARCHELON, originate largely from Dimitris Margaritoulis. He is the man who gave value to the miracle of life taking place on the sea turtle nesting beaches of Greece. The man who perceived the inherent value of their presence and the need for their protection. Dimitris set up a sea turtle monitoring and conservation project from scratch, methodically, industriously and persistently, using his own vigor. His work has always relied on scientific criteria and information as well as international networking. He has set up internationally recognized protocols that have been followed without discounts, and of which all of us in ARCHELON are proud.

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But even more significant was his decision to open up sea turtle conservation to young people, whom he invited to actively build a vision together. He taught us not only the methodology for monitoring and protecting sea turtle them, but also what it means to organize tasks, take responsibility, work collectively in teams, evaluate our course and cooperate with each other. Always, by his side and with us is Anna Kremezi-Margaritouli, his companion in life and in ARCHELON, who created the environmental education program and the publications. They both inspired many people to join the common goal of protecting the environment and nature.

There is lot to remember from these formative first years...

The Professor of Ecology at the AUTH, Nikos Margaris, and the large group of students, including myself, whom he inspired about the management of the natural environment through science.

The visionary Minister of the Environment Antonis Tritsis, who was an urban planner himself, for the decisive first interest of the Greek State in protecting the loggerheads and their nesting beaches. Subsequent Ministers followed his approach and, 15 years later, under the pressure of the European Commission, the environmental organizations Greenpeace, WWF Greece, Zakynthos Ecological Movement and ARCHELON, as well as the threat of a boycott from the international tourism sector, the establishment of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos in 1999 became possible. It took another 18 years of pressure from European Institutions and Greek Organizations to have the coastal zone of Kyparissia Bay designated as a Nature Protection Area. This last area today hosts the largest breeding population of the Loggerhead in the Mediterranean.

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Sea turtle conservation in Greece has benefited from the use of almost all the available legal and institutional tools for the protection of the environment, thanks to the work of civil servants at the Ministry of Environment including Yiannis Vournas, former General Director of Environment, Theano Kelaidi, former Director of Environmental Planning and administrators of the Natural Environment Management Section.

Let me also recall the co-founder and "soul" of WWF International, Luc Hoffmann, who together with Georgia Valaora believed and embraced ARCHELON's proposal for the purchase of the land behind Sekania beach in Laganas Bay, Zakynthos. The purchase was made by WWF Greece, when it was founded a few years later, thus taking another decisive step towards the creation of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos.

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Lili Venizelou, who later channeled her drive and enthusiasm into the creation of MEDASSET, spreading the message for the protection of sea turtles in various Mediterranean countries. Nikos Lalotis, Nikos Lykouresis, Spyros Plessas, Dionysis Tsilimigras, Stamatis Chondrogiannis, Stelios Pettas, George Chronopoulos and all the other friends of the Zakynthian Ecological Movement. Their friendship and support in the frictions, conflicts and confrontations we faced with certain actors in Zakynthos from 1986 to 1990 was decisive. At that time, the Prefect Dimitris Skamnakis, also defended us with vigor.

The establishment of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos in 1999 was accompanied by the establishment of its Management Agency, which began operating in 2002, under the supervision of the Ministry of the Environment. ARCHELON then, together with the environmental organizations WWF Greece and Mom, were invited to jointly have a seat on the 7-member Board of the Management Body. We served this position diligently for 20 years, while at the same time we carried out- with our own financial means- the monitoring program of the nesting activity of loggerheads. Exceptionally during the pandemic, ARCHELON received financial support for the Zakynthos project from the Green Fund of the Ministry of Environment, while scientific data and reports were transmitted to the competent authorities every year.

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Let me bring you back to Attica now: Once ARCHELON became known, fellow citizens started reporting to us the stranded/ injured sea turtles they encountered, asking us for help. The opportunity to do something about it appeared in 1994. The decisive support of the then Mayor of Glyfada, Thodoros Spondylides, who granted us the space to set up the well-known old train wagons led to the establishment of the ARCHELON Sea Turtle Rescue Centre, in the 3rd marina of Glyfada. The Rescue Centre is the first and largest hospital for injured and sick turtles in the Mediterranean. The Municipality of Glyfada and the present Mayor Giorgos Papanikolaou have been continually supporting the Rescue Center. This model unit, which is now quite known worldwide, was recently licensed to operate as one of the first Wildlife Care Centres, according to the legislation initiated by Giorgos Amyras as Deputy Minister of the Environment.

The educational activities of ARCHELON started in 1985 in schools of Zakynthos, and spread by portable educational tool kits /suitcases everywhere in Greece. Thus, the Loggerhead sea turtle became a symbol of endangered wildlife in Greece and the first wild animal to be publicly recognized by its Latin name (Caretta caretta).

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Beach public awareness activities for tourists started in Zakynthos in 1986 and have continued since then with Information Stations and presentations at hotels in all sea turtle nesting areas. As for the Rescue Centre, it has become a visiting destination for thousands of people from Greece and abroad in recent years.

«The fact that we have withstood the ravages of time is undoubtedly due to hard work, adherence to our goal and principles, and our perseverance. Management and associates roll up our sleeves every single day to solve current issues and unexpected problems, and take initiatives in order to realize the goals we have set», Thomas Arapis concluded.

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The event celebrating 40 years of ARCHELON took place in the Auditorium of the Benaki Museum, in Athens, on the 8th of November 2023. Watch what we have accomplished in 40 years here

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