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ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH AND ARTICLES ON MALDIVES

Marine Turtles in the Maldives

By Bluepeace

Introduction:

Although the Maldives has a long history of trade in marine turtle shells and offer vast areas of tropical nesting beaches and feeding grounds ideal at least for Hawksbill and Green turtles, only four species of turtles are known to nest in the Maldives and the fifth one is an occasional visitor to the Maldives' seas.

These species are:
1. Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) VELAA
2. Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) KANHABU
3. Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) VAAVOSHI VELLA
4. Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta care) BOABODHU VELAA
5. Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) MUSHINBI - not known to nest in the Maldives

Out of five marine turtle species, Green and Hawksbill turtle are the most common and nest frequently throughout the Maldives. Leatherback is very rare out of the five species and not known to nest in the Maldives. No nationwide scientific research on local turtle population, its size, structure and the dynamic destruction of its feeding and nesting grounds has been carried out in the Maldives.

Each species has its habitat and feeding needs. The Green turtle is primarily a vegetarian feeding on sea grass and algae. Hawksbill turtles live on coral reefs and use their long beaks to probe into spaces between corals to find sponges and invertebrates to eat. The Leatherback feeds in the upper layers of the open sea and jellyfish are thought to be an important part of its diet. Little is know of feeding grounds of Loggerhead turtles, but they mainly feed on invertebrates. Olive Ridley feeds mainly on crustaceans.

Marine turtle population is also declining throughout the Indian Ocean region. Persistent over-exploitation, especially catching or killing of adult females on the nesting beach and the widespread collection of eggs are largely responsible for the depleted status of six Indian Ocean species. In addition to the direct harvest, marine turtles are accidentally captured in active or abandoned fishing gears, resulting in death of tens of thousands of turtles annually. Coral reef and sea grass degradation, oil spills, chemical waste, plastic and other marine debris, high density beach-front development, and an increase in ocean-based tourism have damaged or eliminated nesting beaches and feeding grounds.

The Measures Taken by Government

Olive Ridley hatchlings
Olive Ridley hatchlings: (Pic credit National Geographic)

The most important measure taken recently by the Government of the Maldives in its efforts to save marine turtles was a Cabinet decision on 21 June 1995 prohibiting catching or killing of any marine turtle species, and their sale, import and export of its products for ten years. However, the harvesting of marine turtle eggs was not banned. According to the Press Release the Cabinet decision was "aimed at conserving the dwindling turtle population in the Maldivian waters, which the Government saw as a serious threat to the marine environment of the country." The Press Release also stated that the Government of the Maldives had decided to take a number of other measures towards conserving marine turtle. They consist of "the formulation of legislation for protecting endangered species, the setting up of sanctuaries for turtle conservation and the presentation of national awards for conservationists."

The Government of the Maldives also launched a nationwide campaign on Television Maldives and Voice of Maldives to create greater awareness among the public about the need to save marine turtles. These programmes were broadcasted on TV and Radio for more that a year since June 1995.

Recommendations:

If no appropriate actions are taken to strengthen the existing conservation measures and introduce new measures to reduce the threats to the survival of marine turtles, the interesting animals will sooner or later be pushed over the verge of extinction.

As a basis for designing marine turtle conservation strategy in this part of the world, we need a detail research on local turtle population, its size, structure and the dynamic destruction of feeding and nesting grounds. Recommended survey technique includes a tagging programme, and local information network to collect and coordinate information available on nesting and feeding grounds of turtles, from fishermen, diving instructors and individual conservationists. Some of the recommendations are briefly discussed below.

1. The Creation of Sanctuaries:

Black turtles mating
Black turtles mating: (Pic credit National Geographic)

There is still not a single sanctuary established in the Maldives to protect marine turtles and its nesting beaches. There is an urgent need to protect the already identified nesting beaches from human encroachment; especially egg harvesting which the most critical issue is facing in the Maldives to save dwindling stock of marine turtles. It is also recommended their feeding grounds and other important habitats, including nesting beaches are to be identified for their effective conservation and management. The first step is for the Government to declare already identified nesting beaches on uninhabited islands as sanctuaries or areas where human activities can be prohibited or minimized. Almost all the uninhabited islands are leased to individuals or companies. They are allowed to harvest turtle eggs according to the lease agreement. The Government should include a new clause prohibiting the harvesting of turtle eggs from their nests and to protect the nesting beaches to the existing agreement on leasing of uninhabited islands. However, this would not solve the problem of poaching of eggs completely from the declared uninhabited island statuaries without strict enforcement. Nationwide ban is the most ideal measure presently; however, such an extreme measure would upset the public, since turtle eggs are used to make one of the traditional dishes, turtle egg omelet (velaa folhi). The indigenous Maldivians should be allowed to exploit some of the eggs; after all, the aim of conservation of turtles is to perpetuate turtle population for sustainable exploitation in the future. Gradual banning on harvesting of eggs is important for the successful marine turtle conservation programme. Eggs have been harvested by the people of Maldives for centuries. Overnight ban without awareness on the importance of conservation of marine turtle, would not be a success.

2. International Commitments:

The Maldives has not acceded the CITES convention (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). All five species of marine turtles seen in the Maldivian waters are on Appendix I (the most endangered species) of the CITES convention. The Maldives signed the Biodiversity treaty at the Rio Summit in June 1992 and it has been ratified later on. By ratifying the Biodiversity treaty the Maldives commits to maintaining biodiversity and the conservation of endangered species including marine turtles, The Government of the Republic of Maldives should accede the CITES Convention and the Bonn Convention on migratory species.

3. Regional Marine Turtle Conservation Programme:

In order to conserve marine-turtles, we have to find out size of local turtle population. Regrettably, today we know little about this scientifically. However, empirical evidence shows that there are decline in number of turtles nesting in the Maldives. Population declines are not always entirely indigenous, what come into view as decline in local population may be direct outcome of activities of people many thousand miles away, they are regional resources, and the continued existence of marine turtles will depend on the cooperation of the coastal states of the South Asia. The information needed by governments and non-governmental organization (NGOs) to eliminate causal factor in marine turtle population decline and exercises transboundary stewardship over these migratory species, it is recommended to develop a regional marine turtle conservation programme within the framework of existing regional organization.

4. Sea Based Tourism and Impact on Marine Turtles:

Sea turtles in search of a beach
Sea turtles in search of a beach: (Pic credit National Geographic)

More and more beaches and nesting sites are getting destroyed with growing number of uninhabited islands developed into resorts and other development purposes.
Lights from the beaches can lead the hatching to wander inland towards the houses and lampposts instead of the moonlit sea. The following day they are eaten by predators or die due to dehydrations in the sun. Therefore, the Government should impose regulations, on tourist resorts where turtle come to nest, requiring that beachfront lights be shielded, lowered, recessed, and/ or re-directed so that emitted light is not visible to the nesting beach. Low-pressure sodium (LPS) vapor lights emit wavelengths to which marine turtles are least attracted and their use must be encouraged. And also discourage leaving lounge chairs, sailboats, and other obstructions on nesting beaches at night. Almost all tourist islands where turtle come to nest, the nests are protected. Tourist resorts normally do not harvest eggs. In some resorts when the eggs are hatched, the hatchlings are put into tanks and feed bread, beef, fish, cabbage etc. Some keep them as pets feeding them by hand etc. When they grow further in size, they are released into the sea. Some wonder whether these activities by the tourist resorts are genuine conservation efforts or a just tourist attraction stunt. A research by Anouk Illangakoo, a leading environmental scientist says that if a turtle released to the sea after 'yoke sacks' dissolves the whole exercise of rearing the hatchings in tanks and hatcheries is futile. The 'yoke sack' with baby turtle is born, contains vital nutrition- dissolves after 48 hours. So, hatchings that ends up in tanks and hatcheries for long period of time -loose this pouch or their "survival kit" before they end up in sea. So starting a life without 'survival kit', or 'parental nurturing' turtle hatchlings has to fight a lonely battle and face many predators.

The Cabinet decision of June 1995 that came into force under section 10 of Fisheries Law no. 5/87 prohibits the catching of turtles. The decision explicitly or implicitly does not allow rearing of marine turtle hatchings or adults in captivity. It could be argued that the Cabinet decision implies that the hatchings to be freely allowed to reach the sea when they come out of the nest, without tempering by humans.
.

5. Beach Development

In Caymans tourists pay about half a million dollar a year to see turtles
In Caymans tourists pay about half a million dollar a year to see turtles : (Pic credit National Geographic)

It is becoming more difficult for turtles to find suitable nesting beaches to lay eggs. A turtle must make her nest well above the high tide make, or the eggs will be spoiled by seawater or the whole nest will be washed away. If any turtle nest well below the high tide mark, it is advised to remove the eggs as soon as it finish laying eggs, carefully bury well above the high tides. Coastal developments and structures to protect properties from the beach erosion reduce the width of the beach and some cases no beach at all. It makes it difficult for turtles to find a spot to lay her eggs. Therefore, the developmental projects must require to carrying out Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) specifically looking into biodiversity, prior to giving permission to start a development project.


Status of marine turtles since 21 June 1995

The number of marine turtles, especially Green and Hawks bills turtles were more visible in the waters of the Maldives even after one year of a total ban on the catching the sale, import and export of all marine turtle products in the Maldives from June 1995. Population increase or decline of highly migratory species such as marine turtles are not always entirely indigenous, as what appear as increase or decline in local population may be direct consequence of activities of people many thousand miles away. It is quite observable empirically that there is an increase in numbers of turtle visible in the Maldivian waters since June 1995. The nesting of turtles has not increased dramatically, despite the visible turtle increase in the water's of the Maldives since June 1995.

The nationwide campaign on Television Maldives and Voice of Maldives to create greater awareness among the public about the need to save marine turtles were broadcasted on TV and Radio little more that a year since June 1995. National award "Green Leaf" was also presented for conservationist.

Conclusion

The most important measure taken recently by the Government of the Maldives in its efforts to save marine turtles was a Cabinet decision on 21 June 1995 prohibiting catching or killing of any marine turtle specie, and their sale, import and export of its products for ten years. However, the turtle egg exploitation continues. Without protection of at least some of the eggs and nesting beaches, it is believed that turtle population cannot be perpetuated for the enjoyment of present and future generations. It is almost seven years since the 10 years moratorium on marine turtles, and this moratorium comes to an end in 2005. By 2005, the effectiveness of the moratorium needs to be assessed scientifically, to implement further marine turtles conservation measures.

References

-Bluepeace (1996) Marine Turtle Conservation in the Maldives. Dhanfulhi. 8:6-8
-Didi N. T. H. (1993) Dhivehi Raajje gai Ulhey Velaa, Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Male'. 74
-Goonathilake.T (28 February 2002) "The Sad Tale of the Baby Turtles" Daily News,Colombo
-Zahir. H (2000) Status of Sea Turtles in the Maldives, Maldives Marine Research
Bulletin. No.4. 43-61

Note: Original published on Bluepeace website :http://www.bluepeacemaldives.org

 

 

 

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