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Saving Sri Lanka's sea turtles

Rare green turtles gone with the waves, Hatchery destroyed

CNN/ Reuters

Saving Sri Lanka's sea turtles
By CNN's Hugh Riminton
Friday, January 7, 2005 Posted: 1129 GMT (1929 HKT)



BENTOTA, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- The tsunami ended so many human lives, the environmental impact has taken second place.

In Sri Lanka, though, there are fears entire species can be wiped out. At particular risk are sea turtles.

Amid the rubble lies the remains of one of the world's last hopes for five endangered species of marine turtle.

"The waves, they're coming and they wash all the hatcheries ... all destroyed," says Kithsiri Kannangara of the Bentota Sea Turtles Project.

For 25 years, kannangari has fought to preserve Sri Lanka's dwindling turtle populations.

The waves killed thousands of baby turtles that were to have been released into the sea the very day the tsunami struck.

"It was more than 20,000 turtle hatchlings ready to go," says Kannangari. Of those, only 400 were saved.

It is effectively a wipeout. Even in ideal conditions, only one hatchling in a thousand survives to adulthood in the wild.

All but one of his adult turtles were also swept away -- "a green turtle about 3 years old, very beautiful," says Kannangari.

The few that have been recovered were found up to 5 kilometers away washed into a local river system. For the moment, he says, this has made the turtles even more endangered.

"The tsunami did a lot of problems for endangered species to protect ... to survive," he says.

Of his three green turtles, two were rescued. Of his Oliver Ridley species, only one of three. Of the hawksbill, he lost nine of 11. His single loggerhead turtle was found, but its shell was badly damaged.

Meanwhile, a handful of the rescued eggs have hatched.

Kannangari is trying to rebuild, but with the sudden death of tourism his revenue base has disappeared.

His more immediate concern, though, are his hawksbill turtles -- internatioinally listed as critically endangered.

"See this beautiful shell? People kill them, especially in the Maldives, there's no protection," he says.

Nearly two weeks after the tsunami, another hawksbill is brought in. "Now we have three, we have three," he says.

Its shell appears affected by freshwater immersion in a nearby stream, and it seems stressed -- showing no interest in food. But Kannangari is confident he can keep it alive.

And depleted as his stocks are, the work goes on. There are so few survivors, but Kannangari says it's time for them to go off to sea.

"Just put them down in the sand ... Here comes the water."

It's not the thousand hatchlings Kannangari had dreamt of, but these are the first ones since the tsunami. Much is now riding on their survival.


 

By Arjuna Wickramasinghe

BENTOTA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Sri Lankan conservationist Kithsiri Kannangara wipes a tear as he stands over a patch of sand and broken wire mesh, the only surviving incubation pit of his hatchery for endangered sea turtles.

Twelve days after giant tsunami waves destroyed the hatchery, washing away 20,000 eggs, seven rare green turtles and $500,000 worth of research equipment, Kannangara is still trying to come to terms with the loss.

The 40-year-old turtle researcher combed a nearby thicket in search of a large leatherback turtle, one of his most prized possessions. His whole life revolved around sea turtles and hatchlings.

His hard work was washed away by the devastating tsunami on Dec. 26, which battered Sri Lanka's southern, eastern and northern shores, killing more than 30,000 people.

"I tried hard to save the eggs, but it was impossible, they were to hatch that day," said Kannangara, holding a couple of spoiled eggs in his hand, each the size of a ping-pong ball.

Kannangara has spent a lifetime protecting these gentle creatures from villagers and poachers.

"Only one out of 1,000 hatchlings survive anyway and for 20,000 eggs to be completely destroyed is an absolute crime," he added.

Over the past 25 years, Kannangara has raised one million turtles in his hatchery, built on the edge of a picturesque stretch of beach in this formerly idyllic resort town in southern Sri Lanka.

Foreign and local visitors to the area rarely leave Bentota without visiting Kannangara's hatchery.

Sea turtles are a protected species in Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean island's palm fringed southern and eastern beaches are safe nesting grounds for five of the eight known varieties of the ancient reptile, including the great leatherback.

But a large number of turtles that come ashore during nesting season are snared by local fisherman each year, who eat them and sell the shells, many of whom say they are unaware that killing a turtle is an offence punishable by a 10-year jail term.

Elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, concern has mounted over the future of the great leatherback turtles who used to nest on the sandy beaches of the Great Nicobar island in the southern stretch of the Nicobar archipelago.

"The beaches are all gone, they won't be able to nest here," said Harry Andrews, director of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team.

The nesting season would usually start in January for the turtles, which can weigh up to 500 kgs.

Back in Bentota, there was a faint ray of hope for Kannangara.

Of 15 good eggs he has collected along the beach since the disaster, three have hatched into babies who could live up to 80-100 years.

"I hope these baby turtles will grow up and return to this same beach to nest," he said. "But I don't think I'll be alive to ensure the safety of those eggs."

(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in Port Blair, India)

 


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka