Bilpin resident Dannii Warner, who previously worked in a big cat sanctuary in South Africa, flew to Sri Lanka this year where she worked in a turtle sanctuary. Here is her story, as she asks if the sanctuaries really deserve the name.
AS YOU drive along the south coast road in Sri Lanka, you see numerous signs enticing visitors into various turtle sanctuaries. All of them are government licensed and they regularly collect turtle eggs along the shore line in order to protect many of the endangered species.
The eggs are taken to the sanctuaries where they are given time to hatch, protected from predators such as dogs, lizards, and their main predator – humans. The sanctuaries use small concrete tanks without plants or stimulation.
The turtles in the sanctuary I volunteered at had babies ranging from one to six days old from Loggerhead, Olive Ridley, Leatherback and Green Sea turtle species.
The manager said they keep some species for a few days until their shells get harder and they are a little bigger, which gives them a better chance of surviving their many predators. Other species need to be released the day they hatch because they won’t adapt to eating in a captive environment.
Overall it is important to release them as soon as possible after hatching because of the ‘swim frenzy’ instinct. It means they will swim non-stop for 24-48 hours after they enter the water. This marathon effort gets the turtle into deeper water where it is less likely to be targeted by predators.
At dusk on one special day we released a handful of babies which was an emotional event. Knowing that their tiny cold flippers were touching sand for the first time and watching them battle against the huge crashing waves was really moving.
These creatures are quite magical because after 30 years they return to the same beach where they were released to lay their eggs. It is thought they know their way back due to magnetic fields, and they use the stars and the moon as guides. After much testing, scientists say that each beach has its own unique smell.
We were lucky to be witness to one turtle laying her eggs on an anti-poaching patrol we were part of. Two other nests we found that same evening had already had the eggs stolen which left us feeling sad that people steal them to eat or for profit after the mothers challenging work.
The sea turtles have many unique features such as their ability to be submerged for extended periods of time. Certain species can stay under water as long as five hours if they are at a resting heart rate, when the heart may only beat every nine minutes. This is of course in extreme circumstances but has been recorded by scientists on a few occasions.
All of the species are extremely beautiful however one has unfortunately caught the eye of illegal traders and tourists alike.
The Hawksbill turtle has a leopard look to the shell, with sharp lightning bolt edges. Because of this unique patterning, they are poached, and items such as rings, jewellery and glasses are made from their shells.
This species also eats sea snakes and poisonous jellyfish without any effect. It has been reported that people have died after illegally eating them because of what the turtle has consumed. (Some might call this outcome karma for eating an endangered species.)
After gazing at these immaculate creatures, I feel concern for their future. The disposal of rubbish in Sri Lanka is a major issue. Fishing villages we visited were a sorry sight with layers of rubbish along the boat beaches.
You would think and hope that since the sea supplies them with an income that they would care for it.
But instead rubbish is thrown overboard and creatures such as the turtles are killed by this practice. The Loggerhead feeds exclusively on jellyfish, and plastic bags look like them in the water, and so get ingested.
Imagine if we could eradicate the use of plastic bags to ensure that these did not end up in our water ways. Easy solutions are out there!
We observed turtles of all sizes in this sanctuary, however several stood out. These were the ones that had been damaged by fishing practices and boat propellers.
A few had full flippers missing and others had large gashes in their flesh. Often they are found after the accident and given to the sanctuaries for rehabilitation.
If they cannot be rehabilitated then they live their lives out in very small tanks without any stimulation, which is why I question the name of sanctuary. In Sri Lanka they won’t put down an animal.
If you want to visit a turtle sanctuary while in Sri Lanka it pays to do your research and find reviews from credible sources, as some sanctuaries are not places of safety for the animals.
We as protectors of the environment need to become more conscious and aware if we are to ensure the ongoing survival of these now threatened and endangered gentle voyagers of the sea.
There is always hope by doing simple things within our individual control such as saying no to plastic bags and straws when out shopping or taking reusable shopping bags with us, and spreading the word to others.
I would like to ask people to be a role model for others and lead the journey to a new way of thinking to ensure we protect and preserve the environment.
I always say, ‘Be the change’ for the future that you want to see, so that these incredible animals can live for countless generations to come.