Turtles of Sri
Turtles are rarely seen because the sea is their habitat and only the
females come ashore and that too only after dark.Land turtles and land
tortoises are also seen infrequently.
Today there are 250 species of turtles. Seven of these live in the
ocean and are called sea turtles. The remaining 243 species live on land
or in freshwater ponds and marshes. The terrestrial turtles, those that
live solely on land, are called tortoises.
Five of the seven species of sea turtles in the world visit the
shores of Sri Lanka to breed. They are the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas),
Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys
olivacea), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Leatherback (Dermochelys
coriacea). The sea turtles are called Kesbawa in Sinhala and Amai in
There are three species of freshwater turtles and one terrestrial
tortoise in Sri Lanka. The freshwater turtles are Parker's Black Turtle
(Melanochelys trijuga pakeri) Sri Lanka Black Turtle (Melanochelys
trijuga thermalis) and the Soft or Flapshell turtle (Lissemys punctata
punctata). The terrestrial tortoise is the Star tortoise (Geochelone
The shells of the turtles and tortoises differ. The carapace or top
part of the shell of the turtles is streamlined and short making
The leathery turtle has a thick leathery skin instead of the bony
shell. Turtles have broad, flattened flippers whilst tortoises have
short cylindrical limbs. The flippers facilitate swimming greatly but
make it very difficult for females to move on the beaches where they
come back to nest.
The males once they get into the sea, as hatchlings never come ashore
though the females come back to the same beaches to lay their eggs.
Turtles take at least 20 years to mature sometimes even as much as 30
years. Mature females after mating at sea come ashore to lay their eggs.
They always come in after dark. The female moves as far up the beach
as possible to lay her eggs. This is to ensure that the water coming up
with the tide does not reach the eggs and spoil them.
Once ashore the female labours up the beach to a spot it chooses.
Then after turning and facing the sea, proceeds to dig a shallow
depression in the sand with its flippers. Once the pit is dug a
cylindrical egg chamber is dug, under her posterior end, also with its
The egg chamber is about 18 to 20 inches depending on the length of
her flippers. Around 75 to 130 soft-shelled, ping-pong ball shaped eggs
are laid. The number of eggs laid varies with the individuals and also
with the species of turtle.
They are covered with mucous when laid. Once the eggs are laid the
nest chamber and the depression are covered with sand and the female
labours back to the sea.
The main breeding season is from September to mid-April on the west
coast of the island and from February to June on the east coast. During
these periods there are no monsoon rains to dampen the eggs and also the
beaches are very broad and sandy.
As far as the Wildlife Department is concerned the Turtle
Conservation Project (TCP) is the sole organisation that is authorised
to run turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka. However, there are a number of
private individuals who have taken up this activity as a business
venture. Some have the cooperation, collaboration and funding from
external organisations and various Non-Governmental Organisations. Most
of them are located in the Kosgama, Induruwa and Balapitiya areas. Under
the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, it is an offence to kill,
wound, harm or keep a turtle in possession, sell or expose for sale any
part of a turtle, or to destroy or take turtle eggs.
If the hatchlings are kept too long in the hatcheries, they will not
be able to find their food quickly enough once they get to the sea.
Initially it takes time for a hatchling to find food and if this does
not happen their survival would be threatened. Ultimately this will not
help turtle conservation even though initially the eggs are rescued and
hatching ensured. Here only the hatchery owner benefits.