Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most important breeding spots for the endangered sea turtle, but heavy development of the coast has contributed greatly to their ever-declining number. To combat that trend, a number of hatcheries have opened along the southern coast. We visited one in Habaraduwa.
The small hatchery, which cost 400 rupees per person, was split into a few sections. A curiously tiny patch of sand in the corner contained batches of eggs (or “clutches”). Each was labeled with the date they were laid, the number of eggs in the clutch, and the exact species. We were told that about one set of eggs hatches every day. I was surprised how tightly the clutches were placed next to each other.
The rest of the hatchery was occupied by a bunch of water tanks. In one, dozens of baby turtles swam clumsily about. They were cute, and would stay in captivity until their fourth day of life before being released into the ocean. Our guide explained that when they’re a bit older, their chances of survival increase dramatically.
Other tanks held injured turtles, including one I nicknamed “Stumpy”. A propeller had carved Stumpy’s right flipper clean off, and the poor guy could no longer submerge. Instead he floated around on top of the water, continually rotating his stump. Five other turtles which had been found clinging to life on the beach, including a couple impressively large specimens, swam about their tanks, recovering in the hatchery until they could be re-released.
The Habaraduwa Hatchery is a private enterprise, unaffiliated with any offical conservation organization. And it was impossible to ignore the disquieting possibility, or likelihood even, that it’s more interested in tourist dollars than protecting sea turtles. The cold reality is that private individuals are going out at night, digging up sea turtle eggs from the beach, bringing them to their property, and then charging tourists to see them.
Seaturtle.org has a comprehensive article on the pros and cons of Sri Lanka’s private hatcheries. The truth is, something has to be done to protect these beautiful, endangered creatures. And if the government won’t step in with an official and adequately enforced conservation effort, private hatcheries might be the next best thing. Yes, they might just want our cash, but this might be one of those rare instances when the interests of capitalism and conservation align. Ultimately, we enjoyed our trip here and felt that it was an enterprise worth tentative support.