Conserving the gentle Turtle

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Turtle populations across the globe have been suffering heavy blows from all quarters. Climate change affects the average temperatures in their breeding beaches, which is believed to have a direct bearing on the sex of the offspring. This in turn impacts the population growth rate. If they are lucky enough to make it through to hatching stage, thousands of hatchlings leave their sandy nests and begin their precarious journey to the Ocean. Out in the open the tiny creatures are prey to Sea birds, dogs and other predators as they waddle their way into the warm waters. More danger awaits them in ocean, in the form of large fish such as sharks. However, human activity is the biggest danger to these gentle and beautiful creatures.

The definitions of Turtle, Tortoise and Terrapin are somewhat different across regions. In Sri Lanka Tortoises are terrestrial Chelonians while turtles are marine and terrapins live in freshwater. The Olive Ridley is the smallest turtle, growing to about 80 cm. The largest turtle is the Leatherback which can reach up to 3m when fully grown.
Human colonisation of the pristine shoreline, destruction of the turtle’s natural habitat and the fact that they are illegally sought for their meat, skin, eggs and shells are some of the major threats faced by these creatures. Fishing nets, collision with boats and propellers are responsible for maiming and untimely death of turtles on a regular basis. Turtles need to come up for air every now and then. Fishing nets are death traps as they get entangled and are unable to surface.

In Sri Lanka, efforts to conserve the turtle population began in the early 1990s. Presently there are many conservation centres in the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka, where the most popular breeding spots of Turtles exist.

The native Sinhala common names
  • Olive Ridley Turtle : Mada Kesbawa/ Eramudhu Kasbawa/ Parai Kesbawa/ Batu Kesbawa
  • Leatherback Turtle : Dara Kesbawa/ Thun Dara Kasbawa/ Vavul Kesbawa/ Thel Kesbawa/ Neu Kesbawa/
  • Green Turtle : Gal Kesbawa/ Mas kesbawa/ Veli Kasbawa/ Kola Kesbawa
  • Hawksbill Turtle : Pothu Kesbawa/ Leli Kasbawa/ Pana Kesbawa
  • Loggerhead Turtle : Olu gedi Kesbawa/ Kannadi Kasbawa

Source - www.srilankaecotourism.com

Turtle egg

A turtle egg

Hikkaduwa is one of the hotspots for such turtle breeding grounds. The Pearl Crew visited a Turtle Hatchery in Peraliya, in Hikkaduwa to find out how they are involved in the nationwide Turtle conservation effort. The villagers collect turtle eggs for consumption. So what the hatchery does is, they buy eggs for a higher price for conservation. It takes approximately 48 days for the eggs to hatch during sunny weather. Rainy days it takes around 60 days.

The hatchery releases 75% of the baby turtles and keep the rest for exhibition. They are released after about 3 days. The hatchery had a special fenced off area for hatching, where the eggs are buried in sand. The sand is piled up on each nest. A nest would typically have around 100 eggs. Once the eggs are hatched, the sand pile collapses and the caretakers know that the hatchlings are ready.

Some of the hatchlings are kept up to an year to ensure survival into adulthood. Although about 10,000 hatchlings are released each year, no one is sure how many of them survive. According to information by The Navy and The Wildlife Department, the long term survival rate is something like 1:1000

Two different turtle species, The Green Turtle and The Hawksbill Turtle hatchlings can be distinguished by their platoon (belly) color. The Green turtle’s plaston is white, while the hawksbill’s is dark brown. This turtle identification link might also be useful.

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A loggerhead turtle at the shelter.
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There are a few disabled turtles being looked after at this hatchery. One of them (below), a Hawksbill turtle, is unable to dive down to the tank and leans along the tank ridge for support. It would not survive out in the ocean and would need to remain in the shelter throughout its natural life. Another turtle however had a part of the broken flipper bone left, and would have some chance of rehabilitation, if it were to be given a prosthetic limb. We hope the curators of this hatchery would be able to facilitate the grafting of such an artificial appendage.
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The lifecycle of the turtle appears to be simple at a glance. A egg-heavy female comes ashore to lay her eggs, under the protection of darkness. Once laid, she will never visit her eggs again. At optimal temperature the eggs will produce an equal ration of male and female offspring. The mystery of how the female turtle keeps returning to the same shores to lay eggs is particularly intriguing. You can find out more about the cycle in this great FAQ provided by The Sea Turtle Conservancy.
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Golden Rules to Help the Conservation Effort
  • Don’t touch baby turtles.
  • Don’t leave trash on the beach.
  • Don’t shine artificial light on beaches at night where sea turtles nest.
  • Don’t contribute to illegal wildlife trades by buy products made of sea turtle shells (Spectacle frames, combs)
  • Learn more about them and share with everyone
  • Spread the conservation message

As a conservation effort, volunteer work is sought to maintain turtle hatcheries. Many tourists. particularly youth, get highly involved in activities here. They also add an attractive touch by painting colorful and attractive images of turtle life that inspire or tell a story to the audience.

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We leave our readers with a poem, in the hope that they will be inspired to support turtle conservation.

Ancient Chelonians

Ancient chelonians of lineage primeval
Their survival now threatened by man’s upheaval

We gather together to celebrate our perception
Of turtles and their need for preservation and protection

For turtles forever to play their part ecological
To prosper and maintain their diversity biological

For turtle and tortoise, terrapin and kin
Their kind to preserve, their future to win

We must work together, I tell you from the heart
Whether we work together, or apart.

- ANDERS G.J. RHODIN

Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photography | Danushka Senadheera (Turtle egg, Incubating eggs in the sand, Turtle hatchlings, Wall graffiti 1)  Nilu Rajapakse (Two turtles, Loggerhead turtle, Disabled turtle, Breeding cycle, Wall graffiti 2)

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