Poaching for eggs

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They come in the early hours of the morning, crawling along the beach to find that ideal spot to lay their eggs. By dawn they are gone, and all that is left is a deep hole in the sand, well covered with hundreds of eggs.

Female turtles having laid their eggs return to the ocean and never see their eggs hatch or the young hatchlings making their way back to the sea. Five out of seven species of sea turtles namely; the Green Turtle, the Loggerhead Turtle, the Hawksbill Turtle, the Leatherback Turtle and the Olive Ridley Turtle, come ashore to nest in Sri Lanka. All five species are endangered or critically endangered and are protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO).

Rekawa is rich in natural resources and is an important nesting site for sea turtles as all five species of turtles come ashore to nest on the beach. “According to research data 96.1 per cent that come to the Rekawa beach are Green Turtles,” says Chairman of the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP), Thushan Kapurusinghe.

The peak nesting season in Rekawa takes place between February and July. Rekawa is well known for its turtle protection and turtle watching programmes. The Turtle Watch Programme in Rekawa is a nature tourism initiative developed by the TCP and contributes towards protecting the remaining sea turtles in the country.

Around 200 eggs

The turtle watch requires some waiting and walking on the beach. A turtle can only be approached once she starts laying her eggs. The whole process of nesting of a turtle can take up to three hours with a female turtle laying around 200 eggs.

The fee charged for the Turtle Watch Programme goes to a central fund which supports the TCP to continue their work in Rekawa and a part of it goes to the Rekawa community. Before the TCP was established turtle eggs were collected and sold by the villagers. But after the TCP was established in the area, turtle egg collectors were paid to become nest protectors and protect the eggs of these turtles.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) declared Rekawa as a turtle conservation sanctuary on 25 May 2006. Wildlife officials say the need to protect the remaining turtle population is important as their numbers are fast declining in the country. However, in recent times the Rekawa beach became a hell hole for these turtles after two nesting Green Turtles were killed by poachers. 

“We thought the poachers had killed only one nesting Green Turtle but now we have confirmation that it is two turtles. These turtles were killed recently by a group of villagers from Oruwella (a village next to Rekawa) whilst nesting females were crawling up on Rekawa beach for nesting. Some nest protectors had encountered these poachers but they were threatened and chased away with swords and knives,” Kapurusinghe said.

He said the poachers didn’t have enough time to cut the whole turtle because of the arrival of nest protectors and the carcasses were thrown into the sea so that nobody would know. “One carcass washed ashore and the other carcass, much later. Both female turtles have been killed in a similar way, by cutting a side of its belly and removing the eggs. Rekawa officials and DWC Officers came to the area but couldn’t catch the culprits,” Kapurusinghe explained.

Commonly found turtle

Director General of DWC, Chandana Sooriyabandara, when questioned about the incident, said area officials are given the authority to do the needful. “Wildlife officers in the area will look into the matter and take necessary action according to the law when the culprits are caught,” Sooriyabandara said.

The Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) is the most commonly found turtle in Sri Lanka and is one of the largest known sea turtles. It can be recognised from its flattened body covered by a tear shaped shell that is blackish grey in colour, a smaller head than the Loggerhead Turtle and a pair of large paddle like flippers.

The adult turtle is relatively large, weighing between 68 and 190 kg with exceptional species weighing as much as 315 kg. The turtle gets its name from the green colour fat found in the layers under its shell. They are found mainly thriving in the tropical waters of the ocean, feeding only on marine vegetation such as algae and sea grass.

Green Turtles are caught and killed to make turtle soup which is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. They are the most common species found nesting on Sri Lanka’s beaches. However, due to illegal egg harvesting and their slaughter for turtle meat, the consumption of polythene, sea erosion, getting caught in fishing nets and boats and been killed by predators, turtles and their nesting areas face a serious threat.

To protect the remaining turtle population in the country the TCP introduced a ground breaking project in 2007 using a hi-tech approach to monitor the movements of baby turtles once released to the sea.  

Electronic devices

“Turtles were fitted with electronic devices and released to their natural habitat. “Sirtrak satellite transmitters were attached to the carapaces of the female Green Turtles shortly after they nested at the Rekawa rookery in conjunction with the TCP’s flipper-tagging and genetic sampling studies at the Rekawa Project site. The turtles were then tracked via the ARGOS satellite system for an anticipated average of 10 months per animal,” Kapurusinghe explained. 

He said the main aim of this project was to discover for the first time the post-nesting migratory routes and foraging grounds of female Green Turtles nesting at Rekawa, a major rookery on the southern coast of Sri Lanka with a view to understanding conservation needs.

“This project provided a valuable insight into the ecology of these species throughout their range and is critical to understanding and addressing potential local threats at sea, as well as the impacts of incidental catch in regional high seas fisheries and coastal fisheries in other areas of their range,” Kapurusinghe said.

ARGOS is a satellite based location and data collection system dedicated to monitoring and protecting the environment. This system offers the fastest and most reliable method for determining distribution patterns for migratory species. This technique is used widely by sea turtle conservation groups worldwide and on over 100 occasions by members of the Marine Turtle Research Group.

Following the attachment on the turtles, the transmitters send valuable messages each time the turtles surface to breathe.

In 2007, four female Green Turtles were fitted with Kiwisat 101 satellite transmitters and released after they had nested within the Rekawa Sanctuary. Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and TCP officers coordinated the tagging with DWC officers, staff and volunteers. In addition regional DWC officers, staff and volunteers attended an introductory workshop on marine turtle research using satellite telemetry held by Peter Richardson at the TCP Office, Rekawa in June 2007.

(Pix courtesy Thushan Kapurusinghe)

By Risidra Mendis