The Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) are two of the seven species of sea turtles in the world that nest at the beaches of Pakistan every year. For over a 100 million years of the earth’s history, sea turtles have made the oceans their home. They are a species so ancient they have seen the dinosaurs evolve and go extinct. Their habitats range from the tropical to sub-tropical regions of the world. The sandy beaches of Sindh and Baluchistan are important nesting sites for sea turtles. Spending most of their lives in the oceans, adult turtles return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. After an incubation period of about two months the youngsters hatch and scramble towards the water. Only one in a thousand survive to adulthood.
The main threats to their survival are pollution, loss of nesting and foraging habitats, poaching, predation, being hit by boats and getting caught in fishing nets. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has classified six of the seven sea turtle species in the world as endangered or critically endangered and forbids their exploitation by international law. The convention also prohibits trade in freshwater turtles. However, in the absence of laws in any of our provinces to protect them, the booming trade in freshwater turtles continues with support from the government of Pakistan, which has recently removed export duty on them with the intervention of the Export Promotion Bureau.
Until a few years ago, at least 60,000 sea turtles annually would accidentally get caught in the nets of US shrimp trawlers alone. Shrimp trawlers throughout the world are now required to use the Turtle Excluder Device that allows turtles caught in the nets to escape. This law, however, is generally poorly enforced worldwide. Unchecked development at the beach is another major threat to sea turtle populations and their nesting habitats. The Pakistani NGO Shehri-CBE is developing a Habitat Management Plan that will serve as an important guideline for any future beach development and turtle conservation activities. Since 1979 the Sindh Wildlife Department , along with IUCN and WWF, has been carrying out a sea turtle conservation project in Pakistan. Adults are tagged and the eggs collected from the beach are incubated in special enclosures at Hawkesbay and Sandspit. Hatchlings are weighed and counted at the Sindh Wildlife lab at the beach and the relevant data is painstakingly gathered. More than 400,000 hatchlings have been released to the sea so far. The department also arranges visits for school children during the peak nesting season between August and January to create awareness about sea turtle conservation.
In order to celebrate sea turtles and to promote conservation efforts, 2006 has been declared as the Year of the Turtle in the Indian Ocean and South-East Asian Region. Recently, a satellite transmitter was attached to a green turtle in a joint project by WWF, SWD and the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi. The battery on the transmitter will last for six months during which invaluable data will be collected about sea turtle navigation and foraging habits.
For beach-goers visiting the beach at night it is important to remember not to make noise or approach the turtles as they come out of the water, or they will go back without laying eggs. If you must see one up close then wait quietly some distance away till she’s out of the water, has dug out a nest completely and starts to lay eggs. This may take a while so you need plenty of patience. The use of lights and bonfires should also be avoided as lights tend to disorient the hatchlings and make them head towards the road instead. If you do find a hatchling on the road carry it safely to the beach and release it a few feet away from the water’s edge.
Additionally, individuals can help protect marine turtles by not leaving behind any litter at the beach and by urging the authorities to implement construction laws for huts. They may also share their knowledge with their friends as well as write letters to the editors of leading Pakistani newspapers about the urgency and importance of turtle conservation.