“It was terrible,” a journalist tells me. I’m at a conference in Central America and, due to an organisational mix-up, I’d just missed out on seeing tiny turtles make their dash to the sea during a visit to a sea turtle conservation programme. So, I’m asking her for the lowdown: were they adorable? Well, it’s not that simple, my peer explains: “The hatchery told us the turtles emerge from their nests at night to evade predators, but then they kept them in tanks to let visitors handle and photograph them before eventually releasing them the next day!”
Turtles should only be handled when absolutely necessary — for their protection or for collecting research data — and then only by trained staff wearing gloves, not by tourists clamouring for Instagram snaps. Responsible Travel’s Vicki Brown explains: “Some hatcheries encourage visitors to play with the turtles and take selfies with them — which is how they make their money — but this can traumatise the animals and spread diseases.”
I’ve heard about hatcheries being more concerned with taking care of the tourists than the turtles. Stories from travellers — particularly in Sri Lanka — of turtles being kept in small concrete tanks for days, weeks, months and even years abound, and albino turtles and ones with misshapen shells often kept as oddities for their whole lives.
These tanks are breeding grounds for disease and bacteria, which can then be transmitted to wild turtles. They’re also a big red flag for responsible tourists, says Dr Jeffrey Seminoff, leader of the Marine Turtle Ecology & Assessment Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in California. “A hatchling turtle has about a 48-hour, on-board energy reserve in the form of an internal yolk sac used for their ‘frenzy swim’ period, which gets them offshore and away from coastal predators. If you keep them in tanks after hatching, you can see them frenzy crawl in their pens, burning off these reserves.”
Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, says, “Some establishments are cashing in on oblivious tourists who are being led to believe they’re helping with turtle conservation during a volunteer project or holiday when, in fact, quite the opposite is true.”
While cynical money-making exercises can be avoided by savvy tourists, even well-meaning amateur conservation efforts can do more harm than good. Running a hatchery is far more complex than just burying eggs and releasing hatchlings. The incubation temperature affects the sex of the turtles and can cause deformities; dry sand dehydrates eggs; compacted sand starves them of oxygen; and moving the eggs too long after laying can rupture the membranes inside. In-situ conservation efforts are strongly encouraged by most experts, with hatcheries seen as a last resort.
“Any strategy that takes turtles out of their natural habitat — even if it’s just moving eggs — is risky,” says Brown. “The theft of eggs is one of the biggest threats to their survival, so working with local communities to raise awareness is essential. Coastal development must be deterred, light pollution reduced, and shorelines cleared of plastic waste. If all these efforts paid off, the hatchery wouldn’t even be needed in the first place.”
With so many hatcheries exploiting turtles for the sake of tourism, and controversies over some paying poachers for eggs, should hatcheries exist at all? Seminoff adds, “They’re absolutely necessary. In many areas, all the eggs would be poached and eaten if it wasn’t for the nurseries. There are good and bad programmes. It’s up to travellers to make sure they find, and support, the good ones.”
The message is clear: turtle power lies with the tourists.
It’s not as clear cut as it may seem, says Dr Seminoff from the NOAA: “It’s very controversial but there are some sites where we’re in a code-red situation and literally every egg deposited needs to get into a nursery. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, egg collectors are part of a cooperative approved by the local authorities: rather than money, they get chits that can be redeemed at local markets for food. We’re actually seeing an entire endangered hawksbill population start to recover because of the practice.”
What’s the best way for people concerned about turtle welfare to help?
Seminoff says, “Don’t buy turtle products, such as tortoiseshell jewellery, and eat only sustainably caught seafood. Do some online research to find a turtle conservation organisation that you like, and donate money.”
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)