Turtles evolved more than 50 million years before the first dinosaur walked the earth – and they have been plying the seas, and hauling themselves onto the world’s warm and sandy beaches to lay their eggs, ever since. Having survived the demise of their younger cousins at the end of the Cretaceous period, human interference over the last hundred years has pushed the seven remaining species of these wonderful relics of that prehistoric world towards the brink of extinction.
Situated beside the prime turtle waters of Sri Lanka, the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery is one of a number of projects around the globe trying to ensure that this doesn’t actually happen and so far, despite tsunamis and the inevitable struggle for funding, it seems to be doing a pretty good job.
One Man’s Passion
The project arose out of the passion of one man – self-confessed ‘animal-lover’ Dudley Perera, who founded the hatchery back in 1988, when he became aware of the extent of the damage that the illegal activities of local villagers was doing to these creatures. The adults were often killed and butchered for their meat, while the future of the turtle population was also being threatened as many nests were being dug up and the eggs sold on the black market. It was a situation that Dudley found intolerable, and shortly afterwards turtle conservation began at Kosgoda.
He understood very early on the importance of monitoring marine turtle activity, and the critical need to protect the key nesting sites in the area – activities which continue to this day. It is the hatchery, however, which arguably provides the single most important aspect of the project – not least for the interest and funding that it helps to generate, principally amid visitors from outside the country. Although it is not a particularly large venture, the concrete pools full of hatchlings and youngsters form a well frequented stop for tourists travelling the beach-side road just outside the village of Kosgoda itself.
Getting a Head Start
The hatchery also serves a very direct conservation purpose, by providing a sanctuary free from natural predators and human egg-collectors within which the vulnerable young turtles can emerge in a high degree of safety. Turtle babies face a huge number of dangers in their young lives – it has been estimated that, left to their own devices, fewer than one in 1,000 actually make it to adulthood – and they are probably never more at risk than during that first, all-important scuttle down to the sea.
Since every youngster that successfully makes it to maturity potentially making a big difference to the chances of these ancient reptiles’ escaping extinction, the Kosgoda programme has been deliberately set up to provide each hatchling with the best possible start in life. Once they have emerged from their eggs, most of them are released directly into the sea at night-time, avoiding the need to run the gauntlet of crabs and other predators that lie in wait for an easy meal. A proportion of the hatchlings stay longer at the hatchery, being cared for by volunteers, many of whom first came as tourists and then returned to help. ‘Headstarting’ them in this way is a well known strategy which has been used very successfully in a number of turtle conservation projects around the world, to build the hatchlings up before release, and so maximising their odds of survival during their critical early days.
With the hatchery typically hatching and releasing 10,000 young turtles in a typical year, for the two most endangered species found in the area – the leatherback and the green turtle – that could prove to be a vital lifeline.
The Tsunami Strikes
The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 did many things. At an estimated magnitude of 9.2, it wrote itself into the record books as one of the strongest seismic events ever known, it killed over a quarter of a million people – the worst death toll for any tsunami to date – and it completely destroyed the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery.
In the aftermath of the 20-foot wave, which surged nearly a mile inland and swept away hatchlings along with Dudley’s house, the damage done to the nesting beaches themselves led many to wonder if turtles could ever return. Fortunately, along with lovingly re-building the hatchery, volunteers have also been involved in projects to rehabilitate the ravaged coastline and make it turtle-friendly once again.
Between such natural disasters and the criminal activity of humans – nearly 100 turtles were seized from black-marketeers in the area in January 2011 alone – life is not easy for these ancient reminders from the Great Age of Reptiles. While there are people like Dudley and his gang of volunteers around to give them a helping hand, however, turtles are likely to be swimming in the seas around Sri Lanka for some time to come.