2020 May 23
Sri Lanka’s exotic marine life has been a source of attraction for tourists over many years now. While this may do wonders to the economy, it isn’t helping the turtles themselves. Any rumours about the good that turtle hatcheries are doing are just that – rumours. The truth about the turtles in Sri Lanka is disheartening and frankly, sickening. They’re not completely safe unless they’re in the wild. So what are turtle conservation projects in Sri Lanka doing? We have a good guess. Some background information first:
What makes these turtles Endangered?
Out of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, five of them nest on Sri Lankan beaches. They hatch on Lankan shores but live in the Indian Ocean. Casually referred to as “magnetic imprint”, the female turtles return to the west and south coast, where their parents laid them, to lay their own eggs.
Out of the five species of sea turtles that hatch on our island, one is threatened, two are endangered and another two are critically endangered.
The threatened Olive Ridley turtles survival depends on going back to a very small number of beaches in three oceans, one of them being the Indian Ocean. These turtles are heavily killed for their shells and meat, not to mention their eggs which have become a speciality around the coast.
The Green turtle is the most commonly found turtles on our shores, but that does not change their conservation status. This specific species is most commonly encountered in soup (you didn’t read that wrong) in addition to poached eggs which are often boiled in stews and served to tourists.
Loggerhead turtles share the conservation status of the Olive Ridley’s. Their eggs are much more commonly poached on our island and thus, their population has started to increase on the east coast of the United States.
The Hawksbill and Leatherback sea turtles are the most endangered, as they are faced with complete extinction off our shores. The hawksbill has an incredibly colourful and symmetrical shell that has put it in the middle of the dartboard for local hunters and poachers.
Leatherbacks lack a hard shell – the only species of sea turtle to do so – and are more defenceless to wild animals and humans.
The high price of poaching eggs.
The sheer frequency of poaching eggs to cover the demand for a delicacy called “turtle egg omelette” which is usually prepared by local restaurants for tourists to try is extremely startling. Especially due to its severe medical side effects (unknown to the tourist). The poverty-stricken people who hunt these eggs and sell them to coastline restaurants knowing the consequences of their actions, both environmentally and legally as every single sea turtle and their eggs are protected by government law. Suhashini Hewavisenthi, Zoologist at the Colombo University says “There is no option at this moment other than the hatcheries. If not, the eggs will end up in someone’s stomach.”
Hatcheries – Choosing tourists over turtles.
However, nearly half of all Sri Lankan hatcheries aren’t doing much to help as they are to harm. To make some extra cash, the hatcheries pack as many baby turtles as they can into cement tanks. These tanks are breeding grounds for different forms of bacteria which could be easily transmitted to wild turtles. This also uses up the energy the hatchlings would have utilized to swim into safe areas in the water, which usually takes about two or three days. Children sometimes take the hatchlings out of their tanks and play with them without any supervision by professionals who know how to handle the turtles harmlessly.
Quite a few other “sanctuaries” offer tourists the option of releasing turtles into the water during the day for a higher price. This makes it more likely that they’ll get eaten before they reach safe areas in the ocean. Research says that only about 1 in 1000 sea turtle hatchlings survive long enough to have offsprings. If they do survive, the female turtles will be confused when the time comes to lay their eggs. After all, they don’t have a “magnetic imprint” to one specific shore because they weren’t born on a beach but in a salty and crammed tank. Unfortunately, “there is no [other] option at this moment.”
The challenges of climate change.
The government banned the poaching of sea turtles and their eggs roughly 50 years ago but have since then, done very little to enforce the act. But, even if the government imposed strict laws that placed turtles under their complete protection, they would be defenceless against climate change. Land pollution in the sand, light pollution and the destruction of coral reefs all contribute to scaring away pregnant sea turtles and prevent them from laying their eggs in safe areas. As you can see, one thing connects to another and if actions aren’t taken quickly to ensure the safety of all five species of sea turtles in Sri Lanka, they could disappear from our shores forever and go extinct.
How can we stop unethical hatcheries?
In the words of James Draven “ Running a hatchery is far more complex than just burying eggs and releasing hatchlings”. Every minor detail counts. From the right incubation temperature which (if not attended to in the right manner) can cause severe deformities, to the right type of sand. Therefore, active conservation efforts are highly recommended by professionals with hatcheries considered as a last resort.
Creating awareness among local communities and tourists could go a long way. As the future of Turtles in Sri Lanka mainly lie in the hands of tourists, its essential that Sri Lanka strengthens responsible travel through ecotourism. Therefore, travellers should be encouraged to support genuine conservation programmes.