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Sunday, 19 May 2013

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Turtles of Sri Lanka

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 Tamil.

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 elegans).

The shells of the turtles and tortoises differ. The carapace or top part of the shell of the turtles is streamlined and short making swimming easy.

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 flippers.

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.

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