As far as amphibians go, sea turtles are arguably on the cuter end of the spectrum. Sri Lanka is something of a haven for sea turtles, with Sri Lankan waters being home to five of the seven species of marine turtles; the green turtle, olive ridley, hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).
Sea turtles are however an endangered species. All marine turtle species found in Sri Lanka are listed as endangered on the country’s National Red List and are legally protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act. They have been protected by Sri Lankan law since 1974. Since 1979, Sri Lanka has also been a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits the import or export of sea turtles and their products.
A young marine biologist is now embarking on a mission to shed more light on sea turtle populations and behaviour in Sri Lanka, starting with compiling a database of the sea turtles that visit Sri Lankan waters. This database, or the Turtle ID Project as it is called, is the hopeful start of a new chapter in sea turtle conservation.
Delving into the Turtle ID Project
The Turtle ID project was conceptualised by marine biologist Chathurika Munasinghe. A graduate in zoology, Munasinghe learned about sea turtles in the course of her studies. After completing her master’s, where she focused on coral reefs and how they are impacted by climate change, she worked in the Maldives for three months, where she observed the amazing work the Maldives was doing with sea turtle conservation, including maintaining a database of the different sea turtles encountered in Maldivian waters.
Conservationists in the Maldives used an open-source software called I3S pattern at its back-end, employing machine identification of the sea turtles using individual markings from specific reference points to identify specific sea turtles.
The process is simple; reference points are first taken at the tip of the nose, the inner edge of the eye, and the furthest scale. The software then outlines the other identification zones and automatically selects 35 points within the zones as identification marks. Once this is completed, the programme shows which turtles have the closest match based on the identification marks, and a user can either mark it as a previously identified turtle or a new individual.
“I thought, why not do something like that in Sri Lanka,” Munasinghe shared, adding: “We have some data on nesting sea turtles, but no database on them. There’s also not a lot of research on them in the water and on their breeding grounds and how they move.”
The Turtle ID Project was born after a casual chat Munasinghe had with Polhena Diving Centre Managing Partner Randunu Dimeshan, who frequently swims around the Polhena Reef area with his diving clients and had frequently encountered sea turtles to the point of being able to identify these turtles from notable physical features such as a scar on a flipper or a damaged carapace.
The Turtle ID Project and its potential to aid sea turtle conservation
Unfortunately, sea turtle populations around the world are on a sharp decline due to natural predators and severe human interference. One of the biggest problems in Sri Lanka is human poachers, who mishandle the eggs to sell to turtle sanctuaries or to locals as a source of food or medicine. Another major problem is the sanctuaries themselves that line the west coast of Sri Lanka. Many of these sanctuaries are set up purely to make money from tourists, with many cruel practices happening day in day out.
For Munasinghe, in addition to poaching, another massive problem is lack of awareness and education on sea turtles, especially when it comes to fishermen. “Most fishermen don’t know how to throw away their old gear, they abandon it in the ocean because they don’t know the harm it does to marine life,” she said, noting that while there are initiatives that look to educate fishermen, they are not always enough. There also needs to be more awareness on the potential benefit the sea turtles have to us as Sri Lankans. “If we can educate people on things like eco-tourism being a proper long-term income and build awareness and educate people on the importance of sea turtles, then we can give them a stronger chance.”
A lack of policing is also an issue that Munasinghe raised, explaining that while sea turtles are protected under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, there is not always a lot of implementation of the law which gives rise to illegal activities.
Creating a database of sea turtles to assess the population size of each species is the main aim of the Turtle ID Project. Munasinghe also hopes that the database will shed some light on turtle migratory patterns in the long run, explaining that some of the turtles use Sri Lankan waters as a feeding ground, especially so near reefs; and as such, learning how they use certain reefs for feeding and breeding is another project aim.
A huge conservation concern at present is the MV X-Press Pearl disaster. The ship was carrying a cargo of nitric acid and plastic pellets, among other items, and was also loaded with 378 metric tonnes of bunker fuel. In the months since its sinking, more than 200 marine turtles have washed up dead on the beaches and in the waters in the vicinity.
What the Turtle ID Project has found so far
The pandemic has seriously impacted the progress of the Turtle ID Project, which was launched in early 2020. With the repeated waves of Covid-19, inter-provincial travel restrictions and the diving on and off seasons to account for, Munasinghe shared that she has been able to do very little diving and photographing of sea turtles.
But this is where the beauty and inclusivity of the Turtle ID Project comes in because it’s not just for marine biologists, academics, and serious conservationists to be a part of, but for recreational divers, tourists, and well, anyone who manages to get good pictures of sea turtles.
The Turtle ID Project has worked with other biologists and enthusiasts as well as other dive centres to get the latter’s clients to take photos during dives. These photos can be uploaded to the Turtle ID Project website, where special software is able to pick up facial patterns and compare them with patterns from already identified individuals stored in the database.
People, even tourists, who have been lucky enough to come across a sea turtle can also visit the Turtle ID Project website or Facebook page and upload their pictures to compare with sea turtles already in the database. If the facial pattern is new, Munasinghe shared, the photo contributor is given the chance to name the new individual.
Each sea turtle identified by the Turtle ID Project is given its own name in an effort to further mark each sea turtle as an individual and an animal in need of protection and conservation. The first sea turtle to be identified by Turtle ID was a female sea turtle who was named Tammy in the Polhena Reef, who was named after a mutual friend of Munasinghe and Dimeshan’s. Some of the other sea turtles identified by the project include sea turtles named Keyara, Alice, Avondster, Shelah, Polly, Olya, and Chuta.
“So far, we have identified 21 sea turtles, which is a good number considering this was all just before Covid,” Munasinghe said, adding: “We get regular updates from Polhena because Randunu (Dimeshan) is based there. It’s good to be able to see the entries and look at the features of the sea turtles around Polhena Reef. The other sea turtles we have identified are from the Pigeon Island National Park, as well as a couple from near Kalpitiya and Unawatuna.”
Of these sea turtles, 18 are hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and three are green turtles (Chelonia mydas), all of them female. Out of the five marine turtles of the world that are found 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.
A new hope for sea turtles
Through the Turtle ID Project, Munasinghe is confident that more research into sea turtles will be inspired to take place, and give these unusual and shy sea creatures a chance to be better understood, and better protected.
While she hasn’t been able to dive and look for sea turtles herself because of the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, she is waiting for restrictions to lift and the threat of Covid-19 to pass so that she can, quite literally, dive back into her research.
To learn more about the Turtle ID Project, and to upload any pictures you might have of sea turtles, please visit their website www.turtleidsrilanka.org or their Facebook page.