It is common sense, that in certain instances various criteria employed in the name of conservation become the very measures that exacerbate the prevailing circumstances. Turtle hatcheries are no exception.
Globally all seven species of marine turtles existing are endangered. Two are critically endangered. Out of these seven species, five species visit the shores of Sri Lanka . Given this situation, it is needless to mention, that conserving marine turtles is of principal concern.
Breeding turtles in captivity before releasing them into the oceans, is primarily done via turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka . Apparently the notion of having 'turtle hatcheries' is exonerated in the name of conservation. But then again, the very techniques operated within these hatcheries, de- Worthwhile to look in to the process of operating a turtle hatchery in order to discern the prevalent instances where mishaps occurred and thereby postulate the necessary measures to circumvent such unbecoming practices.
A turtle hatchery typically consists of an enclosure to bury the eggs, a tank for the hatchlings and another tank for the juveniles and the adults. Usually the hatchery operators or the hatchery owners, purchase the eggs from turtle-egg poachers, and then once the eggs hatch and the hatchlings come out of the sand, they are transferred to the tanks. But should they ever be transferred to tank? As a matter of fact, holding them in tanks is just about the most devastating experience the turtles could ever encounter! But why? To understand this, it is essential to compare these simulated processes against the measuring rod of the corresponding natural occurrences.
The natural occurrence of hatchlings, in contrast is a more vivid and phenomenal wonder A female turtle, heavily burdened with fertilized eggs, returns to the shore she was born, to dig a pit and deposit her eggs. She digs in the dark. (Turtle mostly come to shore in the dark to avoid direct exposure of the sun light.) She would crawl about on the shore engaged in a quest for a suitable site to nest. Digging a pit is a painstaking, but a well planned process, First, she uses her fore flippers and digs a wide but shallow pit, which is referred to as the body pit. Then in the centre of the body pit, she digs another relatively deep and narrow pit with her hind flippers. It is known as the egg chamber She deposits the eggs in this chamber and secretes mucus which is smeared upon the eggs. Mucus is a viscous fluid, that protects the eggs.
Once the mucus is secreted and, she seals the pit, the egg chamber first and next the body pit using the same flippers, and crawls back to the ocean in the dark, leaving behind the nest for good.
After a certain period of incubation, the hatchlings come out of the nest, vigorously digging their way up to the surface of the shore. Interestingly enough, the sex ratio of the hatchlings is temperature dependent, If the temperature of the nest during incubation were above 29 degrees C, the hatchlings are skewed towards becoming females, If it were below 29 degrees C, they are skewed towards becoming males. Alternatively, if it were at 29 degrees C, a 50% of males and a 50 % of females can be anticipated as the turn out.
Once out of the nest, the hatchlings speed vigorously towards the ocean. The visual cues in the vicinity like the bright horizon far away shining stars and the moon guide them towards the ocean. However, if there are other bright light sources like street lamps and hotels in the vicinity the hatchlings could easily get distracted. Still, if the hatchlings manage to reach the oceans safely they start swimming continuously for 48 hours toward the deep waters, without feeding but purely sustaining on their nutrient-rich yolk. They are sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field, hence they are capable of orienting their journey accordingly The process of speeding off towards the ocean and then swimming continuously for two days, is innate and also very important. While they stay occupied in this process, the details of the path they travel get registered in their brain via a complex called imprinting. The turtles never return to that shore again, except until they are mature enough to breed.
However, this natural process of imprinting is upset in hatcheries. It is completely impeded. When hatchlings come off hatchery enclosures they are immediately transferred to the tanks. The hatchlings keep on swimming in the tanks continuously (since it is an innate behavior), and finally stop exhausted once their energy wears off Of course, they are kept in tanks for the purpose of exhibiting. Most often, after they have served the purpose of being 'spectacles and exhibits' to visitors (the foreigners and locals who come to the hatcheries), the hatchery owners release the hatchlings to the ocean. Now, given the natural rate of survival ship of turtles, i.e., for every 1000 hatchlings born only one survives to sexual maturity. they are exhausted, unable to swim and in addition they have been deprived of the initial stages of imprinting.
Turtle hatchlings are very susceptible to predators. They have a range of predators including dogs, monitor lizards, birds of prey fish and of course, man. However, this predator-prey relationship is further exacerbated, because, the hatchery owners often release the hatchlings at a fixed point, and animal predators who become aware of this practice, routinely stalk in the area in anticipation of the releases. Such points serve as 'feeding stations' for these predators.
In another realm of this devastating scenario, the turtle egg poachers have adopted quite an unbecoming practice to locate eggs. They very conveniently jab sharp sticks in to the sand to find out the exact location of the egg clutches. (It is done by jabbing the stick, withdrawing it and then sniffing the edge to see whether it smells of eggs. If it does, then it is an indication that an egg clutch is buried under) This practice damages the egg causing the medium inside to come out and smear on the rest of the eggs, which in turn provides a nutrient-rich base for bacterial and fungal infestations.
Usually, to prevent embryo damage, the eggs should be buried as soon as possible, immediately after they are surfaced. But in most instances this does not happen. By the time hatchery owners pm'-chase the eggs from the poachers and re-bury them, many hours, quite often eight to 12 hours, have elapsed. Also, transporting the eggs from the point of surfacing to the enclosure, should be done with special care. They should be packed appropriately and handled with clean hands. Special care should be taken to prevent the rotation of eggs. These standards however are rarely adopted.
There are many other mishaps that occur during the re-burial process too.
With all its flaws, hatcheries are still essential. Their need can be justified on many grounds. Since they operate on a business level, they provide livelihood and financial means for the community concerned. Also, turtles bred in captivity provide important means for research and education. On the other hand, sometimes turtles resort to lay eggs too close to pathways, vehicle lanes and beach which are not suitable for incubation.
For instance the beaches susceptible to high temperature fluctuations and beaches prone to high
predation fall within this category Under such circumstances, recovering such egg clutches and allowing them to hatch in captivity is entirely justifiable.
However, it should be borne in mind, that turtle hatcheries cannot be operated on an 'avata-giyata' basis. A turtle hatchery operation should be a consorted effort of conservation biologists plus trained personnel. Selection of a site for construction, collecting and handling eggs, packing, tans-porting, re-depositing them and also the release of hatchlings and the modes of release should be handled by trained personnel with expertise. Also, a constant monitoring programme is imperative, specially with respect to maintaining suitable environment in hatcheries, checking temperatures and assessing the survival rates of the turnout. And all artificial hatcheries should simulate the natural conditions to the best extents possible.
They should be devised, strictly based on biological and ecological data of the turtle. For, any conservation project is doomed to backfire, if it were not backed by a strong database of biological and ecological facts of the species concerned. It is ascribed to the lack of this knowledge, that hatchery own-them are illicit. They are illicit on the basis that none of them possess legal permits for operation, in addition to the fact that they have adopted improper techniques accentuated above. And stranger still is the fact that they are being operated under the nose the Department of Wild-life.
Marine turtles are protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance since 1972. Under these laws, even the act of possessing a turtle is prohibited let alone breeding them in captivity or killing them.
However, taking the cur-rent state of affairs into concern, eradicating hatcheries completely will be only too impractical. Such a move would definitely warrant chaos and upheavals. Although eradication may be impractical suitable measures can be taken to circumvent the situation and mitigate the negative impacts.