" The whole other side to turtle sanctuaries that we all should know about"
Just off the coast of Lombok, lie three islands which make up the Gili islands. Gili air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawagan. Whilst researching prior to my trip, I came across a turtle sanctuary that was based on Gili Meno, a short boat ride away from Gili Trawagan where I was staying.
Now those who know me well are fully aware of my adoration of turtles. I don’t know where it came from or at what point it started, but turtles have a huge place in my heart……like unconditional love. I, of course, began straight away looking further into the sanctuary to make sure I wasn’t about to go and visit a money grabbing low welfare establishment, and if I’m being completely honest what I found wasn’t great. For starters there was very little information about the turtle sanctuary online, and I found most of my information through reviews on trip advisor. Visitors claimed that the sanctuary was ran entirely off of donations, and although not the fanciest of set ups, that the turtles in its care were in brilliant condition, so I decided to check it out for myself.
A basic set up was an accurate description of the sanctuary, with a few small, shallow pools containing different age groups of turtles covered by a shelter. Next to them was a small sand pit area. I located the man who ran the small establishment and he explained that he goes around collecting eggs from nests to ensure a greater hatch rate, by bringing them to his sand pit hatching area, away from busy tourist beaches. After witnesses the amount of tourism on the islands, especially Gili T where I was staying, this sounded reasonable, and the fact that the turtles were hatching seemed that the disturbance of their nests wasn’t having an impact. Each pool had a different age group working their way up to the 6-month mark at which point they would be released. Whilst there the owner began feeding the turtles a large bucket of fish and squid. So far so good right? High hatch rate, well fed, released into the wild? That’s what I thought too, but oh how wrong I was.
Recently I have been in contact with an organisation called the Gili Eco Trust, who do amazing work to fight back against the dark side of tourism on the Gili islands. These guys enlightened me to whole other side to turtle sanctuaries that we all should know.
Now we all know that there are two types of ‘sanctuaries’. Those that claim to be devoted to the animals in their care, but are really all about the money; and those that are genuinely trying to help with the best interests at heart. Unfortunately, when it comes to turtle sanctuaries, both are damning.
Let’s start at the beginning. The first few days of a turtle’s life is no stroll down the beach. Newly hatched turtles are around 7cm in size, making them a perfect snack for the many predators waiting for them to begin their voyage across the beach to the sea. At this time, they actually rub an imprint of the beach onto their belly, so they know the area to return to when they come to laying eggs for themselves. Those that make it to the sea still aren’t safe, as they must battle against the tempestuous currents, and avoid becoming pickings from sea birds. To do so they will often take cover underneath floating sea debris. Around 1 in 1000 will make it through this turbulent time and reach adulthood, so why wouldn’t we give them a helping hand to see them pass through these stages with greater ease? A safe tank with lots of food sounds prefect to protect them at their time of weakness, right?
Not quite. For starters hatchling turtles have a lot more fight in them than perceived and are well equipped to fend for themselves during these early stages. Ever noticed how they all seem to emerge at once from their nests in the sand? Well, the hatchlings will wait for their siblings to hatch in order to ensure that they all emerge at the same time to increase their chances of survival. Safety in numbers and all that. They will also wait for the surface temperature of the sand to cool down, as this signifies night fall which also increases their chance of survival… see smart! The yolk sack from their egg provides them with enough energy to scramble down the beach into the sea and away from the coast and predators as fast as they can. Once into the ocean they become part of an ecosystem in which the fittest will survive and natural selection will take its course… as it has done for all of time.
Head starting is what we call the process of taking young animals from the wild and starting them off in captivity to grow bigger in size before releasing them back into the wild. Whilst often done with the best intentions, this technique creates an awful lot of problems. For turtles, they can suffer from diseases such as eye infections and often bite each other due to being kept in groups instead of their natural solitary conditions. One of the main ailments the hatchlings face is lung disease.
During the first few days of its life in the wild, a turtle hatchling will gradually acclimatise itself to the depths of the oceans, training its lungs to expand cope with the pressure of free diving to hunt for food and to relax in deeper waters. The small shallow tanks that they are kept in for 6 months when hatched in captivity do not enable them to do this, preventing necessary lung formation to support them when released.
Then of course there is the regular feeding. The turtles become habituated to expecting food from humans, which could be detrimental to their natural foraging instincts when released, causing them to starve as they wait for their expected food, or make them vulnerable to human harm as they wait around in the shallows to be fed, making them extremely accessible.
Another thing to consider is how moving the turtles will play an impact on the sex ratio of our populations. Turtles come to shore to dig nests deep within the sand. The temperature of the sand which the mother lays the eggs is determined by the depth of the nest, and this in turn determines the gender of the hatchlings. The deeper the nest, the cooler the sand is generally leading to a nest full of males, and the shallower nests which are a bit warmer give rise to females. This is already being thrown out of its natural balance by climate change, and moving the eggs exposing them to new temperatures is not helping.
And lastly, hatching them in an artificial setting removes this important imprinting stage in their life.
Whilst at first glance it may seem like these sanctuaries are increasing the survival rate of our turtles, they are in fact creating populations dependent of humans, which may carry diseases that can easily be spread to surrounding aquatic life when released. Furthermore, with all these factors taken into consideration, it’s not likely that these sanctuaries are increasing the long term survival rate, making them an unnecessary human intervention that is disrupting a natural food chain.
999 of the 1000 that don’t survive to adulthood are not simply discarded to the depths of the ocean. They provide a valuable food source to surrounding life. And whilst a survival rate of 1 in 1000 seems too low to not take intervention measure, we must remember that turtles are one of the planets oldest living species. According to fossil records, turtles have been around since the late Triassic period, which is around 220 million years ago. That’s a long time doing just fine without us invading their nests.
However, humans are having an impact, and not for the right reasons. A species which has successfully seen its way through 220 million years of life on our planet is now at risk of ceasing to exist thanks to human activity. Nearly all of our worlds species of sea turtle are endangered, so it is still important that we act to fight for their survival. But if not through head starting how?
If you see turtles emerging from a nest, leave them to head to the sea on their own. By all means relish in the incredible experience, however avoid handling then hatchlings, using flash photography, and taking selfies. If you see a greedy gull approaching by all means give it a light shoo away to prevent the turtle from becoming easy pickings for a greedy bird!
The light pollution from settlement on or near beaches often confuses the turtles, as they naturally find the sea by heading towards the brightest area. This sees them heading away from the sea towards busy roads. If you witness this happening, AND ONLY THEN, you can give them a helping hand by collecting them up and releasing them closer towards the direction of the sea. But please don’t use this as a selfie opportunity. As little handling as possible here guys! And don’t forget, don’t put them directly into the water as they need to imprint the beaches into their bellies!
Removing obstruction is a huge help to both turtles coming to shore to nest, and hatchlings making their way out to sea. Beach cleans are a huge help and if you look up the area in which you are staying you will more than likely find an organisation that hosts them which you can get involved in. but don’t stop there! You can beach clean at any time you like, even if it’s just one bag of rubbish you remove, it’s still one less bag cluttering the beaches and ending up in our waters!
If you are resident to beach house or are on a beach get away, reduce your noise at night and be sure to turn off your lights to avoid confusing the turtles.
And of course, if you aren’t near a beach and have no plans to visit one any time soon, you can still help save our sea turtles! I know a lot of people and companies are now getting on board with no plastic straws, which is absolutely fantastic! But reducing your plastic carrier bag, whether it be shopping bags, small sandwich bags and so on is also a huge help to ensuring their survival. They are often mistaken by the turtles as jellyfish, which makes up a large amount of the turtle’s diet. This sees several turtles ingesting the plastic bags, as well as other small fragments of plastic which essential makes them starve to death as their stomachs become filled with humans single use plastic.
In short, to help save our turtles get hands on with conservation and don’t support and fund these sanctuaries. It’s a mistake I made which I hope prevents a lot more of you from doing the same thing. Education is key to ensuring the survival of our natural world, so please share this post and spread the word to as many people as you can! And don’t forget to tag me @patch.the.world and the @giliecotrust in your beach cleaning photos!