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Last Updated: Friday, 1 April, 2005, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
Sea turtles return to Sri Lanka
By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC News, Colombo

Many turtle conservation sites and hatcheries along Sri Lanka's southern and western coasts were wiped out in last December's tsunami.

A turtle caught by a fishermen (photo: Dinasena Ratugamage)
Turtle hatcheries were wiped out by the tsunami
With thousands of turtle eggs disappearing in a few minutes, conservationists feared that it could be a death knell for the critically endangered sea turtles.

But according to the latest official study, marine turtles have been seen laying eggs in Sri Lanka's well-known nesting areas.

It is hoped the trend will continue for the whole season.

"Luckily December was not the nesting period. So thousands of eggs and the sea turtles were saved from the tsunami," says Dayananda Kariyawasam, director general of the Sri Lankan department of wildlife conservation.

The priority now is to safeguard the eggs until the hatchlings safely return to the sea.

There are five types of marine turtles found in Sri Lanka: the Loggerhead, Green, Leatherback, Oliver and Hawksbill.

Endangered species

All five are on the endangered list and conservationists have been working for the last three decades to save them from extinction.

Turtle populations over the years have been dwindling due to encroachments on nesting areas, destruction of coral reefs and marine pollution.

In addition, thousands of turtles are also caught for food and illegal turtle eggs are offered as a delicacy in many tourist resorts.

The tsunami added further woes for conservationists.

An endangered Hawksbill turtle (photo: Dinasena Ratugamage)
New coastline building restrictions should help boost turtle numbers
Now, new hatcheries are being set up and conservation programmes are being actively implemented in places including Kosgoda and Rekawa.

In the last few months, officials say debris along the coastal areas, especially in important turtle nesting sites, has been cleared for the turtles to return and lay their eggs.

Conservation efforts

In addition, officials are once again engaging local communities in conservation efforts.

As many local fishermen earned their livelihood by illegally poaching turtle eggs, programmes were initiated to turn the "egg poachers" into "egg protectors".

The scheme employs local fishermen to protect natural turtle nesting sites.

The project, known as in-situ conservation, gave an alternative means of livelihood to fishing folk, who made a living from tourists' interest in turtle-watching.

But the tsunami is now keeping the tourists away.

"We have recently restarted the project in Rekawa. But our resources are limited," says Chandralal Premakumara, an official working with the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP), a Sri Lankan non-governmental organization.

"Unless the tourists return we cannot continue to pay these local fishermen."

Tourists staying away

With many beach resorts in places such as Kosgoda and Tangalle severely damaged by the tsunami, tourists are unlikely to return for turtle-watching in the near future.

A turtle ready for slaughter (photo: Dinasena Ratugamage)
Thousands of turtles are caught for their meat
To complicate matters, thousands of turtles are also caught for their meat and reportedly sold in northern coastal areas like Mannar and Talaimannar.

Though sea turtles and turtle eggs are fully protected by law, slaughtering of turtles increased in the wake of tsunami.

As people stayed away from fish, fishermen resorted to selling turtle meat. Local journalists say live turtles were sold openly in some areas of Mannar and the rules could hardly be enforced.

But officials in Colombo say they are doing their best to bring the situation under control in the Tamil-dominated areas.

Nevertheless, the tsunami has had a positive impact on turtle conservation plans, with new building restrictions on the coastline enabling many turtle conservation sites to be recovered.

But much work remains to be done to increase the turtle population - as for every 1,000 eggs laid by a sea turtle, only one mature adult turtle is likely to survive.

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