Sea Turtles in Sri Lanka – A Dire Situation We Must Address
Sri Lanka is home to a variety of species and comprises various eco-systems with impressive biodiversity. Among these species, marine turtles are given high regard as they are unique, ancient reptiles who have inhabited the earth for more than 100 million years and have evolved to such an extent that they have no natural enemies in the animal kingdom and are an irreplaceable part of marine eco-systems. However, at present, marine turtles are one of the most endangered species in the world, with an 80% decrease in the species in the last 100 years, solely due to human action.
Did you know that there are 7 species of marine turtles in the world, and 5 of them are found in Sri Lanka? Let us delve deeply into these 5 species of sea turtles, their importance to our island, and finally, into the steps required to protect them and ensure their safety in the future.
The Green Turtle, the only herbivorous marine turtle species, is one of the largest sea turtles and is known for its green cartilage. Green turtles around the world are caught and killed to make “turtle soup” using their unique green cartilage, which has made them an “endangered” species today.
Leatherback turtles are the largest species of turtle and the only marine turtles that do not possess a hard shell and scales. They feed on jelly fish and are known to regulate their own body temperature. Unfortunately, at present, they are the most at risk of extinction due to their softer shell being by-caught in fishermen’s nets, and due to poaching of their eggs. They are considered “critically endangered,” and Sri Lanka has not seen a Leatherback turtle on its shores in recent years.
Olive Ridley Turtles are the smallest and most common species of turtle in the world. They are omnivorous, with an affinity for both crustaceans and marine vegetation. Despite their large population, Olive Ridleys are also considered “endangered” at present, mainly due to the collection of their eggs and the mass killing of adult females on beaches.
The Hawksbill Turtle is also relatively small and is known for its hawk-like bill, which helps to eat fish from small crevices, as well as its beautifully patterned shell. Hawksbills are mostly carnivorous, but they eat toxic sponges in the ocean, and they store the toxins in their own flesh. Humans can die from acute food poisoning by consuming hawksbill meat. Hawksbill Turtles are “Critically Endangered” because these turtles have been killed for centuries in order to remove their shells and create tortoise ornaments.
Loggerhead turtles, while being one of the most common turtles around the world, are the rarest nesting species in Sri Lanka. They are known as Loggerheads due to their large heads and muscular jaws with the ability to crush mollusks and crustaceans for consumption. Loggerheads are considered “endangered”, mainly due to climate change and pollution. Due to their rarity on our island, it is imperative that Loggerhead Turtles are given effective protection measures in Sri Lanka.
These 5 species of turtles are found in Sri Lanka due to adult females migrating to coastal beaches and laying eggs before descending back into the ocean. It is our duty to ensure the safety of the eggs, or egg ‘clutches’ laid in order to conserve and continue to increase the population of these species, although their growth rate has been extremely slow in recent years.
What are the threats sea turtles face in Sri Lanka today?
Marine turtles in Sri Lanka face many threats, which can be mainly categorized as natural threats and human threats.
Natural threats that hinder the lives of these species are predators on the beach, such as birds, land and water monitors, dogs, jackals, and species of ants and crabs that may feast on the eggs on coastal beaches, or species of predators at sea who prey on hatchlings and older turtles in the ocean, such as whales, sharks, reef fishes, and even sea birds looking for food.
Natural disasters and phenomena such as floods, storms, tornados, and tidal waves can also cause severe destruction to the protection of these animals. Most turtle conservation centers in Sri Lanka were destroyed in the 2004 tsunami due to their close proximity to the ocean, and the rebuilding process was not a simple one.
Human threats are the biggest contributors to the killing and exploitation of sea turtles, with various actions being carried out at each life stage of the turtle.
Direct killing and harvesting of female turtles who arrive on beaches to lay their eggs, destruction of nesting and foraging grounds for human use, and increased human activities on beaches all affect the nesting stage of the turtle.
Pollution and obstacles on beaches, as well as hatchlings being exploited for the pet trade, affect the hatchling stage and their descent into the ocean.
Juveniles or younger turtles in the ocean die due to ingestion of plastic and debris, chemical and oil spills, along with entanglement in fishing gear and fishing nets.
Older and mating turtles die at sea due to boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, and other spills into the ocean.
Why is it important to protect sea turtles?
Apart from the fact that they are living creatures with a long and proud history that should undoubtedly be given the protection they require, sea turtles have contributed to the sustenance of oceanic eco systems and have maintained the health of world oceans since the beginning.
Sea turtles maintain a variety of marine organisms just by eating them. Green Turtles mainly consume seagrass, and by doing this, they prevent seagrass meadows from growing too long to the point where they may suffocate themselves, which is important because seagrass meadows provide homes for many young marine species as well as being a main provider of oxygen to the ocean.
Hawksbill Turtles consume toxic sponges in various eco-systems, which directly contributes to the long-term sustenance of coral reefs, which are not only the most diverse eco-systems in the world but also provide habitats and shelter for thousands of marine organisms, and even protect coastlines from wave action and storms.
Leatherbacks and loggerheads regulate the population of jellyfish and crustaceans through their consumption, respectively, which helps the ocean diversify more with fish and other organisms.
Sea turtles also provide habitat on their shells for many organisms such as barnacles, algae, and epibionts, which are the main source of food for fish and shrimp.
And finally, because sea turtles can migrate long distances, they further diversify and maintain the ocean by transporting organisms on their shells to the various eco-systems they encounter.
Therefore, it is crucial to conserve and ensure the safety of all species of sea turtles, which are considered “endangered,” some even critically, in today’s world.
What is Sea Turtle conservation and how is it done?
Sea turtle conservation is the efforts taken to protect endangered sea turtles and ensure the protection, safety, and continuation of their species in the future. It takes place in different methods and steps depending on the stage of the turtle in its lifecycle.
This begins with the protection of sea turtles in the ocean. To do so, we can begin with,
Participating in coastal clean-ups where removal of plastic and other pollutants will promote safer nesting grounds for adult female turtles.
Remove plastic and other debris from the ocean which may harm sea turtles in the sea by ingestion or entanglement.
Reduce the use of plastic, polythene, and other items such as balloons, which mostly end up in the ocean and are deadly to sea turtles.
Fishing is a human activity that poses a grave issue for marine turtles. In order to protect turtles while fishing, one can,
Go as slow as possible when travelling in the ocean, to prevent boat strikes, and steer around turtles in areas where they may be found.
Keep an eye out for sea turtles and give them at least 50 yards of space, along with other schools of fish or groups of jellyfish, where sea turtles may be present.
Avoid fishing areas where sea turtles are present, as they may be interested in the bait and could be caught on hooks or in nets.
Never abandon your fishing gear in the ocean, where it may cause harm to sea turtles.
Most importantly, never feed the sea turtles! It is extremely harmful and considered an illegal practice in many regions.
When it comes to the nesting stage, female turtles migrate to coastal beaches where they lay eggs in a secure spot before resorting back to the ocean. At this stage, it is imperative to,
Protect the female turtle from any predators who may attack and ensure clean beaches with no sandcastles, beach chairs, umbrellas, or other objects that may cause hindrances to the female turtles and distress them.
Protect the eggs laid and ensure that no poachers or other predators destroy or steal the eggs.
It is also important to note that female turtles lay eggs at night. Therefore, night patrolling is crucial at these moments to protect the female as well as the eggs.
After the female lays the eggs and descends into the ocean, it is the duty of turtle conservation centers to extract the eggs in a safe manner without turning them, and to bury them in the egg hatchery, where the eggs will all hatch in unison at the correct time. When transferring the eggs to the hatchery, it is important to use a bucket filled with sand and to not turn the eggs over, as this should cause issues for the hatchling. When the eggs are incubated, they should be kept at least 0.5m away from each clutch, in a fenced area where poachers and predators cannot access the eggs, and in a partially shaded area because turtles go through Temperature Dependent Sex Determination, which basically means that the temperature of the soil determines the gender of the hatchling. Failure to partially shade the hatcheries could lead to a higher number of male turtles, which could mean little to no female turtles would be born in the long run, which could lead to extinction.
After the eggs hatch, the hatchlings should not be kept in pools for more than 24 hours, because the more time the hatchling spends away from the sea, the less likely it is to survive in the ocean. Turtles are primarily solitary species, so keeping turtles in pools for prolonged periods will cause stress and distress. Moreover, when different turtle species are grouped together, the carnivores attack the herbivores and could even eat them. It is imperative that the hatchlings are released to the ocean as soon as possible because when they are kept in pools and are manually fed, they lose their survival instincts, and their survival rate in the ocean decreases while their mortality rate goes up.
When releasing hatchlings to the sea, they should only be released early in the morning or in the evening when the sand is cool. It is also important that the hatchlings are released at least 4 m away from the ocean because it is crucial that they feel the sand, especially in the case of female turtles, because female adult turtles migrate to their birthplace when it is time for them to lay eggs. Hatchlings should be released on different sections of the beach with heavy monitoring so that predators do not lurk around the release sites. The release of hatchlings should be severely monitored, as predators such as birds could swoop in at any time to prey on the hatchlings.
Marine Turtles with disabilities or turtles with injuries to their shell, mouth, or flippers should never be released to the ocean, but should be taken care of and treated in these conservation centers, as they will not survive in the ocean due to their injuries. Some disabilities include blindness in turtles due to severe exposure of the egg to sunlight, turtles with injuries in their mouths or flippers due to by-catching on fishing hooks or nets; and even breaking and severe destruction to the shell due to boat strikes. Therefore, these turtles should be taken care of with the utmost importance in conservation centers, as they cannot thrive in the ocean due to their injuries.
Thus, all these steps in each stage of the life cycle of marine turtles are vital in the protection of this species as a whole, which is why we should spread more awareness about this matter.
What issues arise in Sea Turtle conservation in Sri Lanka and what can be done about it?
Turtle conservation in Sri Lanka is a serious issue that should be given more awareness and education among local communities. Out of the 15 conservation centers located and operating in Sri Lanka, only two are considered on a higher scale due to their ethical and meticulous care in the conservation of sea turtles. When it comes to conservation centers, there are many common issues that can be observed apart from the fact that they do not follow some crucial protective measures mentioned above, such as not partially shading hatcheries and keeping hatchlings for more than 24 hours. Injured and disabled turtles are usually given the same diet of fish, regardless of the species, which could adversely affect the health of some turtle species, such as Green Turtles who are herbivores. Moreover, hatchlings are kept in crowded pools for more than 24 hours, sometimes up to three weeks, and are only released when tourists and visitors pay to release the hatchling. Moreover, most conservation centers buy eggs from poachers, and while some consider this the correct manner to make sure the eggs are not used for food or medicine, paying poachers a large amount of money to acquire eggs only increases the profits they gain from the poaching industry and is more incentive for poachers to steal eggs and sell them to conservation centers.
The main issues as to why such problems arise in sea turtle conservation centers in Sri Lanka is due to lack of funding and donations, little to no proper legislation and regulations in relation to turtle poaching, nest theft, and turtle meat in Sri Lanka, and most of all, because of the lack of awareness and education in Sri Lanka with regards to sea turtle conservation.
In order to further develop and continue the correct methods of conservation of marine turtles in Sri Lanka,
Local communities, visitors, and tourists should be educated on the importance of turtles and their conservation, and the matter should be given more consideration by Sri Lanka as a whole.
Conservation centers should redirect the way they approach turtle poachers, either by taking legal action or by giving poachers a different mode of income, such as assisting volunteers.
There should be frequent monitoring of turtle conservation centers within Sri Lanka, which involves experts who are educated on how to give proper sanctuary to these animals.
Conservation centers should NOT allow tourists or visitors to touch or handle sea turtles or hatchlings and should follow proper practices such as releasing hatchlings within 24 hours, having large tanks for injured or disabled turtles to swim in, and ensuring that no healthy turtles are kept in tanks but are released to the ocean.
Hold more volunteer programs and engage locals to help with the conservation projects such as night patrolling, cleaning tanks and coastal clean ups, while promoting the correct education and practices in relation to sea turtle conservation.
Ensuring that there is a consistent source of income for the conservation center, such as a souvenir or gift shop with direct proceeds going into the conservation of marine turtles.
As we can observe from the above facts presented, Sri Lanka has a long way to go when it comes to a true and honest initiation of Sea Turtle conservation, and research and consideration on this matter is imperative to the protection of this wonderful species. The time to act is now!
I urge each and every one of you to give consideration to this matter, and to educate others and create more consensus and awareness on this matter, as it will affect these beautiful reptiles extremely positively in the long run.
Let us all act now, and take matters into our own hands, because one plastic bag removed from the ocean, or one extra volunteer in a program, could make the biggest difference in the life of one sea turtle.