Sri Lanka: A trip to the Turtle Hatchery
A trip to Sri Lanka is always a delight because of the unspoiled beaches and spicy Sri Lankan cuisine which is quite different from our Indian food. A trip to Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, one of the world's most important breeding spots for the endangered turtle, is an enriching experience too Beyniaz Edulji Our visit to Sri Lanka first took us to the capital city of Colombo. My husband's relatives there suggested that we drive down with them on the Southern coastal road. The drive along the beautiful Sri Lankan coast-line took us past vendors selling lotus flowers outside temples and coconut vendors hawking the famous King Coconut and we got to take in the unusual sight of a baby elephant being transported by auto-trolley. The beaches were un-spoilt and gorgeous. We stayed at a beautifully located beach-front hotel in Wadduwa. We enjoyed the spicy Sri Lankan cuisine and signed up with the hotel's travel agent for a trip to the Turtle Hatchery. The visit to the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery was a wondrous experience. Turtles have been in existence for a hundred million years. There are seven species worldwide, five of which can be found in Sri Lanka. The beaches of Sri Lanka are the nesting grounds for five species of marine turtles. They are the Green Turtle, the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, the Loggerhead and the Olive Ridley. Sea turtles have very few predators when they grow to adulthood but they are however extremely vulnerable when young and particularly as hatchlings when they are largely attacked by mammals, birds, crabs and fish. But by far the most dangerous predators of turtles are humans. Turtles, despite being protected in Sri Lanka under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, as well as by International Law are still being caught by local fishermen who sell their shells and turtle meat for which there is a lucrative market. This happens even though any person found guilty of committing this offence will be liable for a jail sentence and fines. At the Turtle Sanctuary great care is taken to protect the Turtles. Out of every 1,000 eggs that are laid by female Turtles, only one mature adult sea turtle is said to survive. The hatchery program is designed to maximise the number of hatchlings reaching the sea and surviving through the critical stages of their early life.On the way to Kosgoda, we could see shells of buildings devastated by the tsunami that hit the coast of Sri Lanka in December 2004. The fishing community of Kosgoda was especially badly hit by a six metre wave which surged almost 2 miles inland. The turtle hatcheries and sanctuaries on the coast suffered heavy losses but luckily marine turtles have returned to nest season after season and year and year mainly thanks to the monumental efforts of the turtle hatcheries and Sanctuaries where eggs are bought from local fishermen for as little as two Sri Lankan Rupees each and then incubated until they are hatched. The baby turtles are put in tanks. Holding the tiny baby turtles in my hand and looking at their flippers, I couldn't help but compare them to tiny baby birds. We were told that turtles mature at the age of 30 years and then start laying their eggs on the sea shore at night. They live for at least 80 years! It is said that they prefer to lay their eggs on the same beach where they were born. They lay approximately 120 eggs at a time. Looking at the eggs, I thought that they looked just like table tennis balls. After laying eggs these turtles go back to the ocean. They keep no connection with the eggs or the newly hatched turtles. The eggs are hatched with the help of the warm sand (heated by the rays of the sun). After about 60 days, the eggs start cracking and new born ones who are about two inches in size find their way to the ocean. At turtle hatcheries, the baby turtles are released after spending a few days in their tanks. They are released only at night to give them a better chance of survival. In some of the tanks were full-grown turtles which were impossible to lift as they were so heavy. Some of them were hurt or maimed by fishing boats and nets and were kept in the tanks to recover. An enormous albino turtle seemed to like human company and having his back rubbed as he kept coming to the surface of his tank and swimming close to us. It was almost like my pet dog back home was following me to ask for a back rub. I was told that he would not be released as his light colour would make him an easy prey to sharks and whales. Among the volunteers working at the hatchery we visited were a few fair-skinned foreigners. They said they did a lot of the cleaning work too! They stayed at home-stays close to the hatchery and on week-ends visited other parts of Sri Lanka.