Sea turtles return to Thai shores during pandemic


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Phuket (Thailand) (AFP) – After laying eggs on a deserted Thai beach, a green sea turtle plunges back into the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea – a welcome sight for biologists who say the absence of tourists has spurred the animal’s return marine.

The nesting turtle was spotted in November by scientists. In about two months, the 100 eggs will hatch and the babies will slide out to sea, guided by the moonlight.

Before the pandemic, millions of tourists gathered on the white sand beaches of southern Thailand, transported to the islands by tour boats that deterred wayward creatures from venturing ashore.

But with nearly 20 months of covid-related travel restrictions in place, several different species of sea turtles have returned to nest around Phuket, an ultra-popular beach destination before the pandemic.

Between October 2020 and February 2021, 18 leatherback turtle nests – which can reach 400 kilograms as adults and are the largest species of sea turtle – were found in Phuket.

“Their nesting has improved over the past two years thanks to the absence of tourists, noise and light pollution,” Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center, told AFP.

In Thailand – as in many other countries – the future of turtles is threatened by global warming, which is harming coral reefs and increasing water temperatures. Lillian SUWANRUMPHA AFP

“We have never seen such a number in 20 years.”

Although the chances of survival are very low – about one in 1,000 hatched eggs will reach adulthood – Kongkiat said the increase in nesting is a positive sign for efforts to conserve endangered species.

An olive ridley nest has also been spotted, the first time in two decades.

Other species that live in the warm waters around Thailand include the leatherback turtle, hawksbill turtle, green turtle, and loggerhead turtle.

No long-term reprieve

But as Thailand tentatively begins to reopen its doors to fully vaccinated international tourists, scientists have tempered their optimism.

“The pandemic could give sea turtles a welcome break,” said Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

“But they are long-lived and are a highly migratory species. Without effective policies to protect them, we cannot expect many long-term population recovery benefits.”

In Thailand – as in many other countries – the future of the marine animal is threatened by global warming, which harms coral reefs and increases water temperatures.

Today, plastic and discarded fishing lines and nets remain the leading cause of illness and death in turtles.
Today, plastic and discarded fishing lines and nets remain the leading cause of illness and death in turtles. Lillian SUWANRUMPHA AFP

Warmer conditions could in turn disrupt populations of turtle species: Studies have shown that warmer sands where they nest result in more female hatchlings compared to males.

Pollution is also a problem.

Today, plastic and discarded fishing lines and nets remain the leading cause of illness and death.

“In 56% of cases, the turtles brought to us ingested or got trapped in marine litter,” said Dr Patcharaporn Kaewong of the Phuket Marine Biological Center.

Currently, 58 turtles are treated there. Some require operations, amputations or prostheses before being released into the wild.

Turtle tracking

At the moment, scientists and local authorities are on high alert for the nesting season, which runs until February.

Once a female turtle has laid a nest, authorities will act quickly – either moving her to a safe place if she is too close to water, or surrounding her with bamboo fences and security cameras.

“After hatching, we take care of the weak turtles until they are strong enough to go to sea,” Patcharaporn said.

Until a few decades ago, eating turtle eggs was a common custom in Thailand, but collecting them was banned by the <a class=Thai government in 1982.” srcset=”https://s.france24.com/media/display/c9e52cee-6393-11ec-8657-005056a97e36/563a3bf34de8814079b7281f45af309f1b1fa51a.jpg” sizes=”” loading=”lazy” class=”m-figure__img lazy”/>
Until a few decades ago, eating turtle eggs was a common custom in Thailand, but collecting them was banned by the Thai government in 1982. Lillian SUWANRUMPHA AFP

She added that educating the public about conservation was also important.

Until a few decades ago, eating turtle eggs was a common custom in Thailand, but collecting them was banned by the Thai government in 1982.

Possession or illegal sale of leatherback turtle eggs is now punishable by three to 15 years in prison and fines of up to $ 50,000.

Some marine protection NGOs also financially reward locals who report a nest, while technology – like a turtle’s microchip – also plays a role in long-term surveillance.

“Thanks to satellite tracking, we have observed that they can migrate much further than we thought,” Kongkiat said, adding that some have gone as far as Australia.

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