Turtle is the most commonly found turtle in Sri Lanka. They are also found in the Indian. Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Their English name refers to the color of the fat found under their upper shell, which is unfortunately used to make turtle soup. Luckily this practice is less common today. Young Green Turtles are mainly carnivorous. Adults however are herbivorous, feeding only on marine vegetation with the help of their finely serrated jaws.
They grow to a maximum length of 1m and can weigh 250kg. Adult females lay between 120-140 eggs at a time. Green Turtles are often found on the beach at night. They tend to nest only every few years but when they do they lay several times in one season.
The critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle is rarer than the Green Turtle. It is also much smaller reaching a maximum length of 90cm and weighing 50-70kg.
The Hawksbill gets its English name from its narrow head and bird-like beak, which is used to catch animals hiding in small crevices. It is a regular visitor to Sri Lanka and other tropical and sub-tropical waters.
Although one of the smaller species of sea turtle, it is renowned for its beautiful shell, which is made up of 13 symmetrical pieces and is very colourful. Sadly this has made it a target for traders – Hawksbill Turtle shell is the sole source of commercial “tortoise-shell”.
The Loggerhead Turtle is rare in Sri Lanka and is more commonly found on the East Coast of America. They are usually red and brown in colour and as its name suggests, is easily identifiable because of its large head!
It grows to a maximum size of 1m and weighs 170-200kg. They are primarily carnivores and its large muscular jaws are ideal for crushing molluscs and crustaceans.
Olive Ridley Turtle
This turtle is endangered because the population depends on the security of a small number of beaches found in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. They have been heavily hunted in the past for their meat and hide.
The smallest of the sea turtles and one of the two species of ridley turtle, the Olive Ridley reaches a maximum size of 65cm and weighs 35-45kg. It is named after its olive/rust coloured shell.
Olive Ridley Turtles nest yearly and many lay their eggs on Kosgoda Beach, depositing more than 150 at one time. They are omnivores, eating crustaceans, fish and some marine vegetation.
This critically endangered turtle is the largest of the 5 species and is a rare find in Sri Lanka. It remains on the brink of extinction.
It is easily identifiable due to its long front flippers and unique black and white stripy shell – its carapace is in fact a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin peppered with thousands of bone plates giving it a leathery appearance. It is in fact the only sea turtle that lacks a hard shell!
In addition they have a unique blood circulatory system for a cold-blooded reptile which means they are able to keep their blood warm even in cold waters using metabolic heat from their muscle activity.
The Leatherback reaches a maximum length of 3m and a weight of 750kg. Their unique flexible carapace and its seven ridges enable them to dive to depths of 1500m in search of their favourite food, the jellyfish!
Around 5 Leatherback Turtles are known to nest at Kosgoda Beach each year.
Sea Turtle Conservation Project
Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project is run by Dudley Perera and his family. The project has been underway since 1988. The main objective of the project is to monitor local sea turtle activity and conserve the local nesting sites. We hope to make the public more aware of how endangered these beautiful creatures are and just how important it is to help protect them before it is too late.
One of the most important activities of.the – project is its hatchery. Within the sanctuary of the project, collected and rescued eggs can hatch safely away from predators before being released into the sea at night-time. In addition, a certain number from each hatching are kept back for a short period for ‘headstarbag’ before release. The hatchery program is.designed to maximize the number of hatchlings reaching the sea and surviving through the critical stages of their early life. Only a few hatchlings from each batch will ever make it to adulthood. Therefore every nest-ground, every egg, every hatchling and every turtle is crucial to the survival of the species. Unfortunately, sea turtles face many dangers.
The project’s work relies on fundraising and grants. The project helped clear and maintain the local beach, protecting vital nesting-grounds (particularly important after the devastation of the Tsunami) and released over 200,000 hatchlings to the wild since 1988. When you consider how long the project has been going, you can begin4p understand the impact the project has.
KSTCP is proud to host international volunteers who assist with the operation of the project and/or undertake local community development projects. In return, volunteers gain valuable experience participating in local projects – learning about turtles, turtle conservation, the local community, Sri Lanka and plenty more besides! Placements with the project start from two weeks’ duration.
Volunteers are based in Kosgoda at homestay accommodation with Dudley and his family. Here volunteers live, learn and work together (and play!); all to a warm welcome and hospitality from the Pereras and Project Staff.
Volunteering at the KSTCP is a very hands-on experience involving beach conservation work, maintenance of the turtle hatchery, turtle feeding (and cleaning!) and even taking tours round the project for locals and tourists! There’s a lot to learn about turtles and Sri Lanka.
The project requires the help of volunteers and locals to keep running.Digging The project needs to be kept clean and tidy, visitors are shown around the site, the turtle tanks need to be well maintained and the turtles themselves need to be looked after and fed.
Conservation of the turtle nesting grounds is crucial to successful breeding of the species. That means keeping the beach clean, planting shelter plants.
There’s nothing quite like a night patrol. you might just witness a beautiful female turtle coming up to nest.
Turtles come up onto the beaches to lay their eggs at night when they are particularly vulnerable. Once they lay their eggs, the nests themselves are vulnerable to predators and poachers – long tracks leading to the nesting site are very obvious.
Eggs collected from nests on the beach (or even bought from poachers to avoid their sale in the markets) are reburied in the hatchery where they can hatch in safety.
Most are released as soon as possible at night (hatchlings should never been released during daytime) but some are kept back for a short period for ‘headstarting’ till they are stronger.
Since the Tsunami, volunteers have also been involved in local community work with rebuilding, play and even some teaching opportunities.
As important as the project is, it is part of a close community and only a community working in partnership can achieve the conservation goals of the project. Kosgoda is home to the most amazing and resilient people as well as turtles.
Turtles in Danger
Sea turtles have few natural predators in adulthood although tiger sharks and killer whales have been known to prey on them. They are however extremely vulnerable when young and particularly as hatchlings when they can be attacked by mammals, birds, crabs and fish amongst others. Nests of eggs make an attractive food source to many scavengers.
However, by far the most dangerous predators of turtles are humans.
Turtles and their eggs are valuable commodities on the black market. Many view turtle eggs as an aphrodisiac; as a symbol of fertility and they are exported to other Asian countries for this reason. Hundreds of thousands of eggs are stolen every year.
The hell of the turtle is used for ornamental purposes such as hair slides and combs and its rarity ensures high demand. The highly endangered Hawksbill has been hunted to the brink of extinction for its carapace, used for the illegal ‘tortoiseshell’ trade. In Sri Lanka, where poverty is widespread, sea turtle nests occurring on the South and Southwest coast are robbed of their eggs by poachers for sale on the black market.
Nesting green turtle females (the most common turtle in Sri Lanka) are slaughtered for their meat, a Pan-Asian delicacy. Thousands are killed a year. The high yield of good quality meat and the ease with which turtles can be caught has made them particularly desirable food items in coastal communities around the world. Turtle soup, common on menus across Asia, is considered by many to be a rare delicacy.
The fishing industry in the seas around the island of Sri Lanka is key to the economy. However, many turtles meet their end by becoming entangled accidentally in fisherman’s nets. This number is as high as 300,000 per annum worldwide. Furthermore, turtles are vulnerable to extreme weather, habitat degradation/loss and sea or beach pollution; much of which has been caused by human activity.
Human activity on beaches can also deter turtles from nesting and use of artificial lighting near beaches has been known to disorientate both nesting turtles and hatchlings.
Text by Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project