Conserving the ‘Ambassadors of the Ocean’

Saturday, 22 June 2013 06:13 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Marianne David The conservation of sea turtles is becoming increasingly important, especially in the backdrop of the numerous threats posed to their survival. Sri Lanka has a major role to play in this regard, being home to five of the seven species of marine turtles in the world. Of these five, two are currently critically endangered. The sea turtles calling our shores home are the Green Turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle, Leatherback Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle and Loggerhead Turtle. The Leatherback Turtle and the Hawksbill Turtle are the two most critically endangered. Species not found in Sri Lanka are the Flatback Turtle and Kemp’s Ridley Turtle. Threats facing turtles In an interview with the Daily FT, Thushan Kapurusinghe, the Project Leader of the Turtle Conservation Project Sri Lanka, said that there were many threats facing the turtles at present. “Firstly, people are still collecting turtle eggs, particularly in the western and southern coastal belts. There are well known nesting beaches located in the western and southern coastal belts and people collect lots of eggs in these areas. We have lost a lot of hatchlings due to these egg poachers,” he said. A turtle’s eggs are used in a manner similar to how people use a hen’s eggs: People drink them raw, boil them or prepare dishes such as omelettes and also prepare them as a ‘bite’ to be consumed with alcohol, while some people collect eggs in order to sell them to hatcheries. Another threat is from the fisheries industry, with many turtles getting entangled in fishing nets. According to Kapurusinghe, the turtle by-catch is very high in Sri Lanka. There have been a lot of injured turtles in recent months from areas such as Moratuwa and Panadura – mainly due to nylon fishing nets – while the by-catch threat is severe in the north western coastal belt, in the Mannar and Kalpitiya area. Beach erosion, especially due to rough seas, has also resulted in the loss of many nesting beaches. “We had a lot of nesting beaches along the western and southern coast but we have lost a lot of places, expect for a few places in Bentota, Kosgada, Induruwa and Tangalle, etc.,” said Kapurusinghe. The destruction of Sri Lanka’s coral reefs due to global warming and alarming rise of the temperature in the sea has also increased the danger to the marine turtles. “Even a one degree change can cause the death of corals reefs, which provide foraging grounds for sea turtles. When corals die, they lose foraging grounds. The sea level rise due to the rising temperature also negatively affects the nesting beaches. Lowland areas are affected and then turtles lose nesting grounds,” explained Kapurusinghe. The destroying of lagoons and mangroves – such as the Puttalam lagoon – due to pollution, shrimp farming, coastal tourism development activities and the clearing of beach vegetation also destroy the habitats of marine turtles. “Beach vegetation is very important for nesting. Turtle nests are incubated by the sunlight, which should be filtered through the leaves and branches of beach vegetation. There is no parental role there,” said Kapurusinghe. Other threats to marine turtles according to the Turtle Conservation Project are the slaughter of nesting female turtles at rookeries, unsustainable exploitation of marine turtle habitat, uncontrolled environmentally insensitive development of industries close to marine turtle habitat which result in indirect as well as direct effects to marine turtle populations, nocturnal disturbances at rookeries and contamination by agricultural and industrial pollutants. Turtle hatcheries Commenting on the role played by turtle hatcheries in sea turtle conservation, Kapurusinghe said that all hatcheries are illegal in Sri Lanka, according to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), which is implemented by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. “The possession of dead or live sea turtles, collection of turtle eggs and disturbing turtles are illegal activities. We don’t suggest closing down all these hatcheries; they can contribute positively if they manage the hatcheries in a scientific way,” he asserted. Kapurusinghe also outlined ways in which people can aid sea turtle conservation efforts. “One is they should learn about sea turtle biology, conservation and management. People who are living close to the ocean should make sure not to use bright lights towards the sea. Sea turtles are disturbed by bright lights and they are also attracted by lights. When hatchlings emerge during the night, they go to the sea straight away. But if you have lights coming from anywhere, they go towards the light. If there is traffic, the babies go towards the traffic instead of going to the sea.” Citing the Kosgoda Bridge as an example, he said that given the large number of vehicles travelling on it, when they carry out conservation activities they see the baby turtles go towards the lagoon instead of the sea since they are attracted to the lights. Spread the conservation message Kapurusinghe also detailed how people could help to spread the conservation message: “If they find an injured turtle they can call us or the Wildlife Department. Sri Lanka needs a few sea turtle rehabilitation centres (turtle hospitals) to treat the injured turtles as quickly as possible. Fishermen can contribute effectively by increasing awareness and making them realise that turtles are not the enemies of fishermen. Fishermen believe that turtles destroy nets. As animals they will naturally eat fish but you should not get angry and chop their heads off for this reason.” In the case of school children, people can teach them why turtles are endangered and create awareness. “Out of the seven marine turtle species in the world, Sri Lanka is home to five. We have to make sure that their future is secured in Sri Lanka,” emphasised Kapurusinghe. Conservation efforts can also include encouraging researchers – from universities and foreign agencies, for example – to conduct research in Sri Lanka into the lifecycle of the turtle, since this is poorly understood at the moment. “Turtles are highly migratory species. They live in all the oceans. We want to know what the other countries are that are shared by our nesting population. They may nest here but they go to other places – for example to Japan or India – to feed and mate. We could have a bilateral or multilateral partnership program; after all, marine turtles are ambassadors of the ocean,” affirmed Kapurusinghe. Public lecture on Thursday In an attempt to aid conservation efforts, the American Center in Colombo will be hosting a public lecture on ‘Sea Turtle Conservation and Management in Sri Lanka’ by Kapurusinghe on Thursday, 27 June from 4 p.m. to 5 pm. The lecture and discussion afterwards will cover the biology of sea turtles, behaviour, their breeding and nesting, current threats, conservation, and management. Kapurusinghe started his wildlife carrier in 1985. He had his academic training from the Open University of Sri Lanka and the Duke University Marine Laboratory in North Carolina, USA, and read for his Masters in ‘Conservation and Tourism’ at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), University of Kent, UK. Kapurusinghe has extensive experience in marine and coastal resource management with community participation in Sri Lanka. His main interests are community based ecosystem conservation, diversification of community livelihoods, protected area co-management strategies and sustainability of community-based projects.