Tsunami devastates turtle conservation

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December’s tsunami devastated efforts to save Indian Ocean turtles, with scores of field staff killed or missing. The Indian Ocean and South East Asian Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding brings together nations in the area to preserve the endangered marine reptiles and says it is shocked by the effects of the killer waves.

Facilities in India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, Sri Lanka and Thailand were the hardest hit, says turtle expert and conservationist Janki Lenin.

Research stations have also been badly damaged, she says.

Sole survivor

The Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust field station at Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar was devastated by the tsunami. Six out of its seven field staff – including four scientists studying Olive Ridley and Leatherback turtles – are missing presumed dead.

Only field assistant Santosh Augu survived after he was reported missing for 17 days.

“I have not seen any of my colleagues since the tsunami. I think they are dead,” he says.

The Gahirmatha marine sanctuary in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, a major centre for turtle conservation, was one of the few sanctuaries to escape damage.

But wildlife department officials say that even here, the waves battered Babubali and Agarnasi nesting grounds, causing erosion of the sandy beach.

The good news was that all conservation staff escaped unscathed.

The Kosgoda nesting beach on Sri Lanka’s southern coast was hit by a six-metre high wave. The Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) there is managed by 17 local egg-protectors, six research officers and some foreign volunteers.

All except three of the egg protectors were swept into the sea by the tsunami. The TCP office at Kosgoda, located one kilometre inland, was inundated and its equipment suffered massive damage.

Killer waves

Two other nesting grounds at Rekawa and Bundala are yet to be surveyed by damage assessment teams.

Several privately owned turtle hatcheries were also affected by the killer waves, with hundreds of reptiles being washed away as holding tanks were shattered.

One private operator in Sri Lanka lost about 10,000 turtle eggs and several hundred hatchlings.

“The Turtle Conservation Project finds strength in community participation, so it is time to start all over again,” says Pankaj Seksaria of the Indian environment protection group, Kalpvriksh.

In Thailand, three turtle research facilities were badly affected.

At Koh Phra Thong, the Italian Naucrates conservation project was wiped out with heavy losses.

Two of its marine biologists, Rebecca Clark from Canada and Lisa Jones from Britain, who were working on the Golden Buddha beach, were swept away by the giant waves.

A memorial fund has been set up in their names to continue the conservation work at Naucrates.

The Thai navy’s headstart programme at Tap Lamu naval base is also in ruins.

At least 2,000 turtles from two months old to seven years were lost from a successful conservation programme run by the navy.

Scores of turtles were also missing from Phuket’s Marine and Coastal Resource Development and Research Institute.

Biologist Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong said: “The tsunami may push the dwindling turtle population one step closer to extinction.”

Calcutta zoologist, Sudeshna Mukherjee, says those turtles that survived may find it difficult to find regular food sources like sea grass because of the damage to sea vegetation.

The Indian Ocean countries are now starting a special conservation plan to save turtles, including a scheme to protect their nesting and feeding grounds.

But that cannot happen without finding staff to replace those lost in the tsunami, and that will take time.

By Subir Bhaumik

BBC News, Calcutta