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Turtle species in Sri Lanka

Hatching havoc ! - Turtle Hatchery Threat

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Hatching havoc ! - Turtle Hatchery Threat


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.


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