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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


Care for the wild
1 Ashfolds, Horsham Road, Rusper, West Sussex RH 12 4QX

An account of this project was presented by Alex Wilson at the BCG Symposium, University of Bristol, 16 April 1994.

A question I am often asked is this; "How can you expect people in a relatively poor, developing country like Sri Lanka, to be interested in turtle conservation?".

This is a fair point. Five species of marine turtle nest on the shores of Sri Lanka. All of them are listed by the IUCN as either "endangered" or "vulnerable" species. Those responsible for turtle exploitation are generally from the poorer coastal communities who are happy to make as much money as possible from their immediate environment. Almost 100% of the nests laid by turtles on the South West coast are robbed of their eggs as they can be sold to private dealers for 2.25 Rupees each. An average clutch of 120 eggs would therefore fetch approximately 93.75 and in a country that boasts an average wage of approximately 940 per month, it is no surprise to find that turtle egg collecting is a common practice. On Rekawa, a 3km beach on the South coast and one of the most important Green Turtle rookeries in Sri Lanka, there are around about 50 egg collectors per night at peak season, all hoping to take home at least one clutch of eggs. There are only around about 15 nests laid per night.

Adult turtles are killed too, for their meat and, if they are Hawksbill Turtles, for their shells. Turtle meat sells for £l.50 per kilo and the scales of the endangered Hawksbill Turtle, misleadingly called "tortoiseshell", are worth £40 per kilo. Occasionally nesting female turtles are killed when they come up to nest, but most adult turtle victims are accidentally caught in fishing gear. Even if they are alive when the nets are hauled up, the turtles are still butchered as a motionless turtle without flippers is easier to extract from the net than a turtle that is thrashing about. The meat or shells are then sold as compensation to pay for the repairs to the nets needed after such a turtle entanglement.

Therefore, despite all native turtle species (and their eggs) being given full legal protection since 1972, turtle egg collection and turtle slaughter carry on in Sri Lanka unabated. It is worth breaking the law.

Enter the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP). The TCP is an initiative by Care for the Wild, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka and the Young Zoologist Association of Sri Lanka. The aim of the TCP is to devise and implement sustainable turtle conservation measures. The TCP began in September 1993, Care for the Wild planning to have only a five year involvement. After this time the TCP should be ready to be passed on to the hands of specially trained and selected Sri Lankan nationals.

The first season of the TCP involved finding out as much about the turtles of Sri Lanka as possible, including the identification of the main conservation problems. The most important rookeries were located by preliminary daytime track counts and local knowledge was tapped in a south west coastal survey of fishermen and coastal community members. The management practices of the several "tourist attraction" turtle hatcheries were studied and the extent of the "tortoiseshell" (the shell of the endangered Hawksbill Turtle) trade was thoroughly investigated.

As a result of these and other surveys, reports were produced regarding the elimination of the "tortoiseshell trade", the improvement and control of hatchery management and "turtle friendly" coastal development. These were submitted to the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the Ceylon Tourist Board and several environmental NGOS. The Government responded by establishing a national turtle conservation committee comprising of various academics, environmental campaigners, government department representatives and businessmen. Mr Peter Richardson, the leader of the TCP, is also on the committee which is currently devising a national action plan for turtle conservation. He will be attempting to maintain enthusiasm for the committee whatever the results of the mid-August Sri Lankan general elections.

The importance of education has not been neglected by the TCP and a comprehensive programme was established in Sri Lanka as quickly as possible. Slideshows were held each night in hotels up and down the west coast during which tourists were encouraged not to buy "tortoiseshell" items and to write to the relevant government departments if they felt offended at being offered illegal items as souvenirs. One such letter was influential in the decision of the Department of Wildlife Conservation to form the turtle conservation committee. A series of public lectures were given in the island's capital, Colombo and a programme of curricular lectures was initiated in schools along the south west coast. In early 1994 an information poster, co-produced by the TCP and the Government's Coastal Conservation Department will be published in Singhalese and Tamil and distributed to schools throughout Sri Lanka. The poster will highlight the danger of exploitation and habitat destruction to turtles and coral reefs at the same time inspiring some awe in the children for their coastal environment.

The most ambitious and perhaps the most important aim of the TCP is to address the introductory issue of the value of conserving turtles to the poor coastal communities. This will not be easy considering the current value of destructive exploitation and the fact that the desperation of poverty is, understandably, not conducive to long term vision. Rekawa was chosen as a potential site for sustainable conservation not only because of the numbers of turtles that nest there, but also because of the current extent of turtle exploitation. If the project is successful in Rekawa, then the eventual strategy employed can be showcased.

Rekawa is a small, coastal fishing/agricultural village of 170 families lying on the border of the Southern wet and dry zone habitats. There is no large scale commercial development (indeed no electricity supply or telephone) within the village and so the community has maintained its cultural integrity and until recently, traditional methods of subsistence constituted day to day life. However, Tangaile, a tourist resort 8 miles east along the coast is expanding in line with the national trend towards tourist development. The "unspoilt" nature of Rekawa beach makes it an ideal site for large scale tourist development, a prospect which is welcomed by some of the younger members of the community, but feared by others. Many believe that most of the profits earned from tourism in Rekawa would not benefit the local community but instead be channelled into the accounts of the investors. The income that would be locally generated would be scant compensation for the cultural, moral and environmental destruction typical of previous large scale development in other parts of Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately a poorly planned irrigation system in a neighbouring wetland has drained Rekawa of most of its ground water and as a result, most of the land is no longer suitable for agriculture. This has led to the proliferation of other non-sustainable activities such as sea-fishing; coral mining (for lime kilns); fishing and wood collection from the nearby mangrove lagoon; turtle egg collection etc,.

The TCP's work in Rekawa is still in embryonic stages, but even so, much has been achieved. As an introduction to the local community, the TCP set up extra-curricular English Language classes. English is taught in Sri Lanka's schools, but the lack of financial incentives for Sri Lankan English teachers has created 6000 current vacancies. This means that the teaching standards have fallen and spoken English is rarely encouraged. For less privileged students this is just one more factor that prevents them from entering the primarily English speaking business and academic communities. The TCP classes, as well as being a service to the Rekawa community, will improve the employment prospects of attendees, thus in the long term reducing the pressure on the Rekawa environment. The TCP also hopes to employ some locals in future research activities and they would therefore benefit from the improvement of their communication abilities.

The TCP's socioeconomic and biodiversity surveys within the Rekawa village, on the beach and in the nearby mangrove lagoon system have been revealing. The people are aware of the declining turtle populations and attribute the decline to egg collecting and the slaughter of turtles accidentally caught in nets. They are aware of the extensive damage caused to reefs by mining and they are alarmed by the decline of their nearshore and open sea fisheries. When asked why they carry on, the answer was not surprising, "but what else can we do?".

Well, what the villagers were not aware of was the potential importance of the incredible diversity of their unique coastal, Wet/Dry Zone border environment. Of the five species of turtle found in Sri Lanka, the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), the Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) and the Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) regularly nest on Rekawa beach. The Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate) and the Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys otivacea) occasionally nest but are more commonly seen feeding amongst the nearshore reefs. Apart from the turtle rookery and coral reefs, the biodiversity survey revealed at least one new species of fish to Sri Lanka living in the extensive mangrove system, and as many species of birds as in the country's area of highest recorded bird diversity, the Wet Zone forests.

It would be of scientific interest to study this environment and so the TCP is finalising the proposals for a research centre in the Rekawa village. The only way that this can be justified to the villagers is if they are not only involved, but also if the village as a whole can derive some income from it. In 1995 the funding of the research centre will be discussed in a series of meetings with interested community members. One possibility that some people have expressed an interest in is that of combining the research centre with a small "eco-tourist venture". This would be run as a business, by a decision making committee of Rekawa community members.

The income generated by such a venture would be used to fund the lodge, the research centre, pay the salaries of the staff and pay former egg collectors to act as guides and actually protect the turtle nests. A percentage of the profits could be banked in a community development fund, the use of which would be decided by the community committee. Obviously this would be tourism, but to make the package more acceptable to local sceptics, the philosophy would be to make a lot of money from a small number of affluent, specialist tourists and thereby minimise the cultural intrusion.

This is only an idea at present and there is still a lot of convincing to do. As well as some Rekawa villagers, many members of Sri Lanka's environnmental lobby are distrustful of "eco-tourism". Although Sri Lanka has never experienced sustainable eco-tourism, existing wildlife tours on the island involve companies making money without any profit going back into conservation or community welfare. Examples of eco-tourism projects going wrong in other parts of the world have been publicised thus creating a sense of unease about the concept. The task of the TCP will be to use these examples, as well as those of successful ecotourism projects, to identify possible flaws in such a system in Rekawa and describe pre-emptive methods to avoid failure.

In the present financial and political climate of Sri Lanka, conservation must be married with development if it is going to compete with the politically influential investors. If well managed, then such a system in Rekawa could provide the community with a sustainable income and give their immediate environment a previously unrealised value.

If the environment and particularly the turtles are not given a new value, then they will continue to be destructively exploited. The only eventual outcome will be that the turtle populations diminish until there are none left. The loss of such an asset would obviously be a tragedy, particularly for those communities involved. They would be one step closer to having nothing left at all and have no choice other than to compromise their culture and values to the big investors.

Testudo Volume Four Number One 1994