The turtle flapped his tiny flippers as our guide gestured at me to hold out my hand. I shook my head. “No.”
Sri Lanka is home to a number of endemic species that can’t be found in other parts of the world. It is quite simply bursting with wildlife… from the elephants that roam the rural areas, to huge blue whales found off the shores of the south, to the hundreds of species of birds you can spot throughout the country. People visit Sri Lanka from all over the world, not only for its stunning beaches and historic cities, but also to see the wildlife up close.
The area on Sri Lanka’s west coast sees particularly high levels of sea turtles. Like everyone else, I wanted to see them on our visit to Sri Lanka. I had seen photos of these tiny little guys in the palms of peoples’ hands on Instagram. I wanted to see them flapping across the sand towards the sea. Because why wouldn’t you, right?
Most of the establishments along the west coast market themselves as ‘sea turtle conservation projects’. Many species of the sea turtles in these establishments are endangered, so the projects describe themselves as organisations that have the conservation of these beautiful animals as their number one priority.
So, I started my research into which conservation project to visit.
The first project I found, which was recommended in my Lonely Planet guide, advised that you went to the establishment at 8pm and waited for the female turtles to come ashore to nest. Once she had finished nesting, visitors were allowed to go to the beach and watch her as she flapped her way back to the sea.
The establishment’s website advised that loud noise (music, talking etc.) and bright lights were prohibited. Lights can confuse the turtles, who mistake them for the light of the moon on the ocean. The rules advised visitors are allowed to take a red torch and to take photos without flash photography.
It sounded promising, but the reviews on TripAdvisor advised otherwise. In fact, up to seventy tourists were allowed to access the beach at once, crowding around the 3-4 turtles that were trying to get back to the sea. People were noisy, flash photography was used… and according to the reviews, the the organisation did little to stop it.
I recoiled. I didn’t want to support this. Not only would it stress the turtle out, having hoards of tourists trying to take its photo and shining lights in its face, but it would stress me out if other people weren’t acting in a sensible and responsible manner.
Instead, we looked at visiting a sea turtle hatchery. We settled on the place with the best reviews on TripAdvisor and even changed our itinerary last-minute so that we could include a night in Bentota and have enough time to visit.
But despite all of my research, I knew from the start that we might not enjoy our visit. I’m always sceptical of visiting attractions that involve animals, as sometimes they don’t have the animals’ best interests at heart and operate on a for-profit basis, like the first place I had researched.
“Are you sure about this, Abs? It might upset you,” James said to me as we boarded the bus for Kosgoda. I assured him I had read the reviews and this place sounded promising. Not a single negative review. I swallowed my doubts and off we went.
I broadcasted our experience on my Instagram stories.
The sight before my eyes wasn’t particularly inviting: a few rows of small, concrete “tanks” were in front of us. I could see a flipper or shell poking out of one or two of them. I took a deep breath and told myself that it was in the turtles’ best interests.
Our guide began the tour. At the first tank, she explained that after the turtles hatch, they are kept at the project for the first five days of their lives for “head starting”. She explained that many turtles don’t survive the predators of the sea, but in the tanks, they are able to build their strength before heading back to the big, scary ocean.
“That’s not so bad,” I told myself. Plus, they were cute, I have to admit. Some of them seemed to be playing with each other, but others were flapping furiously at the walls of the concrete tank, perhaps in the hope they could get out.
But then she fished one of them out and held him up to us. I realised this might be a little different to how I expected it to be.
The next tank had slightly bigger “babies” in them. These ones were a couple of months old, and again, we were told that they are kept in the tanks to increase their chances of survival. I shook away a thought that popped into my head: Why do some of them go back to the sea after five days, and some after a few months?
As our tour went on, the sickening feeling in my stomach got progressively worse.
The next few tanks held bigger turtles. These ones were two years old and we were told they would be released into the sea at three years old. As always when in Asia, you begin to question the honesty of what you’re told. I hoped with all my heart that they weren’t kept here any longer than that.
There were two or three turtles of different species in these tanks. Although they had a companion, these turtles looked the saddest, almost hanging their heads in despair. They swam back and forth in their concrete boxes, pausing now and then to interact with their cellmate.
“You want to hold them?” our guide asked.
I shuddered. I dread to think how many times those turtles have been lifted out of the water so people can take photos with them.
“No, thank you.” I said.
I asked our guide why these turtles were still here. Surely they were strong enough to return to the ocean now, after up to two years in the tanks.
Her response for both the two-month old and two-year old turtles was the same: “for education”.
I didn’t understand so I asked her to clarify.
The turtles are kept in the tanks to allow visitors to see what the different species look like. Visitors such as school groups and tourists – like us – are able to see these beautiful animals up close in a “responsible” way, as the entrance fees go towards the conservation of these previous species. I nodded, but it didn’t seem completely transparent.
The next turtle had a tank to himself. He was deformed: his shell was twisted to one side and he struggled to swim. We were told that his chances of survival at sea were minimal.
Although it was sad for him to have to spend the rest of his days in a concrete tank, I felt slightly better that the project were (seemingly) giving him the care that he required.
The last tank made me feel the saddest. A single turtle swam back and forth; he was a rare Albino turtle. I asked when he would go back to sea.
“He will stay here,” she replied, explaining that he is too precious to go back to sea and is safer at the project.
I turned to James, “So his reward for being a rare breed is having to live in a tank his whole life?”
At the back of the establishment was the hatchery, an area which is securely fenced off. The eggs are buried here until they hatch. Signs are put up by each ‘nest’ to advise the species of the turtles.
I asked how the eggs get to the hatchery.
The guide explained to us that local fishermen collect the eggs and sell them to the establishment. If the eggs are left on the beaches, they after often eaten by predators or taken by poachers, who sell them on the black market. The hatchery pays the fisherman a higher amount (I’m not sure how much) for the eggs than what they could get elsewhere, which encourages them to keep bringing the eggs to the hatchery. I assume this is where the 1000 rupee entrance fee goes.
One of the other things you can do at turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka is release the baby turtles into the sea at sunset. There’s an additional charge for this. However, once we had seen this place, I didn’t want to give any more money to an establishment that I felt was exploiting rare animals for profit.
Since visiting the hatchery, I’ve done a lot of research about turtle hatcheries.
The first thing I found is that each one of these “conservation projects” seems to operate in a similar way: buying eggs from local fishermen, keeping some of the turtles in their tanks for “education,” allowing you to hold the turtles and “set the babies free”.
The only place that seems to operate differently is the first place I mentioned in this post, which allows you to watch the adult turtles return to the sea; the eggs on this beach are left alone. But as I mentioned earlier, the fact that this place allows 70+ spectators on the beach at once deterred me from going.
The second thing I discovered is that sea turtle hatcheries may not actually be helping the conservation of these animals at all.
As a matter of fact, holding them in tanks is just about the most devastating experience the turtles could ever encounter! Source
Naturally, hatchlings return to the sea within the first 48 hours of their life and build up their strength in the waves and to swim away from predators. On the contrary, in the tanks, they don’t have to fight the tide or any predators, so it’s believed that they don’t build up the necessary strength they need in the first few days of their life, which in turn makes them weaker when they finally do return to the sea.
By moving the eggs from the beach to the hatchery, their temperature is upset, which plays a huge part in the gender of the hatchling. The eggs must be kept at exactly 29 degrees C to ensure a 50:50 ratio of males to females.
According to the Sri Lanka Ecotourism website, the process of ‘imprinting’ is disturbed when babies are transferred to the tanks. This is the process in which the turtle speeds across the sand towards the ocean and subsequently swims for 48 hours straight without eating, all whilst registering the path he has taken (they never return to the same shore, except to breed).
By moving the eggs and releasing them by hand, the predators become more aware of the time and place to expect the baby turtles to be released. This means they are in fact more susceptible to these dangers.
Entrusting locals to collect the eggs means that necessary training on how to carefully collect them is avoided.
Whilst I agree that establishments need to be in place to conserve endangered species, I believe they must operate in the right way.
I agreed that the establishment was seemingly giving the appropriate care to the deformed turtle, who wouldn’t survive at sea. I also agreed that the establishment was discouraging the sale of sea turtle eggs on the black market.
I can’t condone an organisation that exploits these animals and keeps them locked in concrete tanks for three years (hopefully no longer) just for “education”. It just doesn’t seem fair to me.
I also didn’t agree that the albino turtle was confined to his tank for the rest of his life, simply because he was a rare breed.
And I did not like that our guide encouraged us to lift the turtles out of the water and take photos with them. These are living, breathing beings, not tourist attractions. Surely someone who is supposedly conserving these animals shouldn’t encourage tourists to hold them and pose for photos with them?
I felt like the organisation was trying to make money off us and that the animals were an exhibit, a spectacle for visitors to enjoy. And putting the turtles’ wellbeing at risk for the sake of tourism is not something I support.
Thanks for reading and happy (responsible!) travels,
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The turtle hatchery we visited is called Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, located at 13A Galle Road, Mahapalana, Kosgoda, and the first project I mentioned but didn’t go to was Rekawa Turtle Watch, Rekawa Road, Rekawa.