Written by Steve McAnon, CNN

We first heard about Sunday Pomaar last summer on the horizon of a palm plantation in Ghana, where the man, known by friends as "Big Daddy," was trekking along with men from both his old tribe and the new in search of endangered African turtles, a source of food and medicine.

Much of Africa's livelihoods are interwoven with the 4-inch-long reptiles. Though their numbers are largely unknown in the wild, Pomaar had no doubt they were present in Ghana -- the source of the South African diamond that feeds their high-value trade.

"The loss of their habitat, the loss of their sea shell, has gone because of illegal mining," he said.

In conservation projects, teams of researchers often describe the number of local people willing to engage in meaningful conservation as a measure of its success. But in Pomaar's case, he said, he and others successfully persuaded local chiefs to allow the turtle tagging team to complete its work.

"One of the chiefs got tired of the plundering of his land," Pomaar said. "He started to think that the way for him to have a decent life was for him to have a secure living for his family."

The chief had purchased land in the region but was caught poaching, Pomaar said.

Jemal Michael, a representative of Cocoa Oueho, an NGO that supports sustainable harvesting in coastal communities, said the experience of Pomaar had a profound effect on his people.

He recalled a much smaller operation, last July in Namibia, where he witnessed landowners in a nearby fishing village once again working to restrict their ability to damage the marine ecosystem.

"We know the villagers here and the people of this area understand the importance of turtles," he said. "They want their children to have good education, they want them to be good people and that's why we're trying to convince people to allow them to continue. It's not only about conservation."

Pomaar doesn't seem so worried about conservation anymore. On a recent excursion to Italy to support film-maker Hicham Ayouch, who is working to document a documentary of his work, he said his goal in life was simply to enjoy everything.

Pomaar, 57, has also been successful in interlinking farming and arts communities.

He now lives in France with his adopted wife, a Frenchwoman, and their daughter, whom he's had for 27 years.

When they come to visit each other, he said, he's happy to take his daughter to the garden, and marvels at how beautiful that looks now that he knows how important it is.

"I feel now that I live the complete life, I don't have so many technical problems to face," he said. "My daughter can get everything, we can buy all the food for our home, go on the land, I don't have to work in a factory any more."

"I think life is good. I go to the river every day. I love being in the rain forest."

Pomaar, who is non-smoking, said his life has become healthier as he gets older.

"I'm not fighting to stay healthy like with my blood pressure," he said. "I don't take medications anymore, if I take medications I'll die. The real thing is to just enjoy life."