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SKYLINES MAGAZINE TRAVEL WRITER OF THE YEAR 2001

SAVING TURTLES IN SRI LANKA
Rosemay North

CAN TURTLES SURVIVE THE 21St Century?
A Cornishman's Turtle Conservation Project in Sri Lanka

Tonight I am lying on the sand with a sixty-year-old Green Turtle which is giving birth to a hundred eggs. I am on a beach near the southern tip of Sri Lanka. The sand is damp and soft, Demerara sugar beneath my fingers and toes; its smell as sweet as freshly washed cotton. A few slow heavy drops of rain fall from a goose-feather cloud as it drifts away, the last of the monsoon.

© Photo Rosemary North
Matt with his Turtle

 

Stars glitter distantly. A sliver of moonlight touches the crest of each wave, glistening far out across the sea. We hear the rhythm as each wave rushes to the shore then shushes out to sea again: the sound of infinity. Turtles have laid their eggs on this beach forever. Sometimes, small sand-slips occur as the heaped up sand collapses on top of the turtle in her body-pit; she is too engrossed in the egg-laying process to notice. The eggs fall spasmodically as the turtle's body armour flexes slightly with the effort of squeezing each egg from the tube. She lays more than a hundred eggs in a little over twenty minutes. I reach down into the egg-chamber beneath the turtle's body, gently retrieve each egg and pass it to Matt, who weighs and measures them. The eggs look like battered table-tennis balls; they feel like soft leather, still slippery from the birth canal, heavy with life. I hold each small egg reverently, aware that if this is one of the few to survive, it will grow into a massive submarine scavenger like its mother, who now lies stranded, high and dry and exhausted on the sand. Matt Kingshott is living in Sri Lanka for six months, working with a Turtle Conservation Project. This involves recording data, tagging, providing protection and acting as midwife to the five species of turtle which come ashore on this beach: Green Turtles, Olive Ridleys, Hawksbills, Loggerheads and Leatherbacks. All are either endangered or threatened. Various conservation projects have been set up around the world, but since it takes hatchlings thirty years to reach sexual maturity, it will be impossible to gauge the success of these measures for many years.

Turtles mate at sea. Hatchlings in the same nest may have different fathers, as each female mates with several males, which gives the species a degree of genetic advantage. Each mature female will try to return to the "rookery", or nesting beach, where she hatched. There she will lay five or six batches of eggs at fortnightly intervals, averaging a hundred and twenty eggs per batch, on alternate years. Six or seven hundred eggs every two years might sound excessive, but few will survive to become adult turtles. The mother covers her eggs with sand, rests for an hour and a half, then laboriously drags her body back down the beach to swim away. From that moment, she abandons them to the dispassionate care of Mother Nature. Predators abound. Dogs dig and gorge on eggs. Lizards burrow below the sand for them: I watched a monitor lizard, four feet long, attack Matt when he hauled it out of a turtle's nest by its tail. Men mark the turtles' tracks and sell the eggs at market as a delicacy. Some eggs are infertile; some fail to hatch. Hatchlings emerging after the sixty-day gestation period 'float' to the top of the nest, rather than digging their way up. The lower eggs hatch first. A newly hatched turtle occupies less space and weighs less than a whole egg. As the turtles move, their struggle to emerge from their shells causes sand to fall through the egg-pile: the turtles rise to the top. When few eggs are left intact to boost them upwards, the last turtles to hatch are unable to rise high enough through the debris of discarded shells to escape from their sandy burial chamber. Sand temperature is significant in the hatching process. Gender is determined by temperature: below 29 degrees, turtles will become male, above 29 degrees they will be female. Most hatchlings stay an inch or two below the surface of the sand until the temperature drops at night.

While undertaking research on islands off West Africa, Matt was given convincing proof that turtles find their way to the water by light orientation. Moonlight reflected on the sea and the brightness of the surf contrast with the dark jungle, guiding the turtles towards the water. Once Matt accidentally left his light on overnight at his home where the jungle edged the beach. When he woke next day, dozens of two-inch long turtles were trying to climb onto his verandah. Turtles are programmed genetically for a triathlon of frantic activity following hatching. Having struggled to emerge from the egg, they race seawards across the sand, at risk from predators. For two days hatchlings instinctively swim as far as possible out to sea without stopping. If they delay to feed in inshore waters, they will be vulnerable to fish and seabirds, hovering ready to snap them up; baby turtles automatically dive when they see shadows overhead. Once they reach the ocean, only one in a thousand hatchlings survive to become predators instead of prey. Last month, at a Nevada conference, the president of Conservation International warned that the turtle is on the brink of extinction. Man has been identified as the main threat. Turtle meat is eaten in many parts of the world; turtles are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The turtle trade continues to grow. Protection is patchy; legislation ignores some species. The conference agreed there is a need for the turtle trade to be monitored, for discussions with the Chinese government, for wildlife law enforcement, for more education and captive-breeding programmes.

In Sri Lanka, turtle meat continues to be eaten and turtle eggs continue to be poached, despite government legislation passed in 1972 to safeguard them. Individual initiatives have been set up, but not everyone agrees about the most effective method. Around the south-west coast are many turtle hatcheries: some seem more dedicated to attracting tourists than to protecting turtles. One of the better projects is at Kosgoda, run by a grandson of Kabrew Similies. who started it in 1977. It aims to prevent predators from marauding nests or catching the hatchlings. Eggs are retrieved from the nests and reburied in a sandy enclosure completely covered by netting. At the point of emergence, hatchlings are transferred to tanks of sea-water to be fattened for a few days before being released directly into the sea. Hatcheries claim this makes turtles less vulnerable to beach predators and gives them the opportunity to become stronger for the long swim out to sea. Matt Kingshott has studied turtles nesting on Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific beaches. He argues that the hatchery method ignores the beneficial effect of the non-stop swim instinct. If hatchlings remain in captivity through these vital days, that instinct is wasted: on release the turtles swim slowly as they search for food, making themselves even more vulnerable to predators. Eggs packed in sand at birth stay at a constant temperature which gives a ninety per cent survival rate to point of emergence; eggs moved later have a survival rate of seventy per cent. Matt sees the less intrusive Turtle Conservation Project approach as more effective. Beach patrols minimise interference with nests and hatchlings; paying ex-poachers to do the patrols educates the local community. More significantly, it gives the ex-poachers an alternative source of income. Soon Matt will travel to the southern states of America or to Hawaii to continue his conservation work.

The Sri Lankan employees and volunteers working on this Turtle Conservation Project, and in the hatcheries, will continue to make their contribution to the preservation of the five species of turtle which nest here. Turtles have survived as a species for two hundred million years. But have we left it too late to save the turtle from extinction? Will the turtle survive the 21st Cnetury? It is an emotional moment as we watch the exhausted mother turtle haul her great body towards the sea. Last night this turtle made a "false crawl", abandoning her task after two and a half hours of abortive digging, because her body-pit kept collapsing. The turtle halts as the first refreshing waves wash over her; we feel her relief as the cool water pulls her towards the oceans where she belongs. Tonight she has succeeded in laying more than a hundred eggs. But will any of the hatchlings survive to return to this beach in thirty years? We watch and wonder as the waves wash over her again and she slips silently out to sea.

Rosemary North
2001


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