In Sri Lanka, Biologists and Divers Build a Facebook for Sea Turtles
August 13, 2021
The Polhena reef and the surrounding shallow seas in southern Sri Lanka are home to a number of marine turtles that stay there year-round. Dimeshan, the managing partner at the Polhena Diving Center, met Munasinghe, a marine biologist at the Ocean Conservation and Education Alliance (OCEA), during a discussion of underwater cleanups, and this gave rise to the idea of setting up a similar citizen-science initiative in Sri Lanka. After preparations, the pair launched the Sri Lanka Turtle ID project in August 2019, several months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The Turtle ID project has so far identified 18 hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and three green turtles (Chelonia mydas), all of them female. Of the seven marine turtle species found around the world, five can be observed in Sri Lankan waters. The olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is the most common, but these are mostly found farther out in the open ocean.
Creating a database of sea turtles to assess the population size of each species is the main aim of the initiative. Some of the turtles use Sri Lankan waters as a feeding ground, especially where reefs abound, so learning how they use certain reefs for feeding and breeding is another project aim. The team also expects the database to shed some light on turtle migratory patterns in the long run.
Before then, most studies on marine turtle populations relied on capturing animals and tagging them with a marker such as a flipper tag or transmitter, which can be costly. Tags are also difﬁcult to apply to turtles, as they remain in the water unless they reach beaches for nesting. So almost all physical tags are generally applied to nesting females. The photo identification method is both more cost-effective and avoids putting the animals under any stress, Jean wrote in a 2010 paper.
In recent months, there has been especially a great and urgent need around the turtle’s conservation in Sri Lanka, following the sinking of the MV X-Press Pearl cargo ship off the western coast of the island in early June. That ship was “carrying a cargo of nitric acid and plastic pellets, among other items, and was also loaded with 378 metric tons of bunker fuel. In the months since its sinking, more than 200 marine turtles have washed up dead on the beaches.”
Many sea turtles are presently threatened and many of the species are considered endangered. For example, the hawksbill turtle is a critically endangered species of sea turtle inhabiting the tropic areas, including Sri Lanka. Apart from living in Sri Lanka’s waters, they also inhabit such countries as Bahrain, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, UAE, Vietnam, Yemen. This species has also been classified as Endangered in the IUCN Red List first since 1982. They are included in Appendix I of CITES and are protected at the national level in some jurisdictions.