SKYLINES MAGAZINE TRAVEL WRITER OF THE YEAR 2001
SAVING TURTLES IN SRI LANKA
TURTLES SURVIVE THE 21St Century?
A Cornishman's Turtle Conservation Project in Sri Lanka
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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