Millions of years ago, long before humans, marine turtles started coming to the undisturbed beaches of Sri Lanka to lay their eggs. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists all five species of marine turtles (Leatherback, Green turtle, Olive Ridley, Loggerhead and Hawksbill) that frequent Sri Lanka’s shores to nest as endangered, vulnerable or critically endangered. All these five species nest on Rekawa beach in the southern part of this island. Sri Lankan government legislation (1972) provides national protection for marine turtles and prohibits harming of turtles. However, turtle nesting beaches are being disturbed by tourist industry development and feeding habitats, such as coral reefs, are being destroyed by pollution and unsustainable harvesting. People still eat turtle eggs – and turtles – because they are considered very healthy and festive. Many turtles are accidentally caught and drown in fishing nets each year. The critically endangered Hawksbill turtle has been hunted to the brink of extinction for its carapace to provide raw materials for the illegal ‘tortoiseshell’ trade.
The Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) developed a unique approach to turtle conservation in Rekawa – and continued this up until this day. Firstly, it provides in situ protection for turtle nests. This means that eggs remain where they were laid, with nest protectors providing protection across the entire beach. This maximizes the yield of the nests and ensures as many hatchlings as possible survive into the sea. All nest protectors that are working on Rekawa beach are local men and are former turtle egg poachers. They protect the beach 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in six hour shifts. The nest-protectors ensure all nests are safe from human poaching and, when possible, from animal predators. Besides these activities they make sure the beach remains clean and support the nightly Turtle Watches by patrolling and spotting turtles as they arrive on the beach, checking on the status of nesting turtles and – if necessary – relocate the eggs to a higher, safer place on the beach if the water could wash away the nest. Providing this type of in-situ nest protection is the most effective form of turtle nest conservation. When we know a nest is due to hatch, the nest protector regularly checks for activity in the sand and guides the hatchlings to the sea – making sure crabs, birds, dogs and other land predators do not eat them. Late starters are helped and might be spotted by tourists.
The second core element of TCP’s approach was to establish projects that over time become financially self-sustainable, funded predominantly by tourism revenues and completely run by the local community (see also COMMUNITY PROJECTS). Therefore all benefits from the project directly impact the livelihood of the local people who live alongside the protected wildlife. NFR now runs the daily Turtlewatch in Rekawa and is self-sustainable.