Hong Kong struggling to save sea turtles
Monday, November 10, 2003 Posted: 1521 GMT (11:21 PM HKT)
Conservation officials release baby green turtles to the sea in October 2001 from Sham Wan beach in Hong Kong.
HONG KONG (AP) -- Older villagers on Lamma Island have fond memories of distant summer nights on the beach, where they quietly crawled along the sands to see where the giant, green sea turtles were laying eggs.
"All of us -- men and women, adults and children -- slept on the beach and shut up when the turtles were here," said 65-year-old Chan Kam-wan. "We picked up the eggs, one by one, from behind as the turtles worked hard to squeeze them out right in front of us."
It was a tradition that gave islanders tasty food.
"They smelled like rotten fish, but they became a delicacy after we steamed them with oil, salt and soya sauce," recalled Chan's husband, 73-year-old Chau Kit-ling, whose ancestors settled in the island several hundreds years ago.
The eggs could also bounce like ping-pong balls, he said.
Besides the eggs, turtle meat and snakes were the only food Chau could scrounge up during the difficult years of Japan's occupation of Hong Kong during World War II.
But the days of eating turtle eggs have long since passed. Hong Kong banned consumption of turtle eggs in 1976 hoping to save the highly endangered green turtles. Efforts have been stepped up through the years -- including the closing of Sham Wan beach from each June to October -- and Hong Kong is even tracking some of the turtles by satellite.
But some worry that the campaign to save the turtles could be too little, too late.
The numbers of sea turtles seen in Hong Kong has been plunging for decades, and Sham Wan is their last registered nesting place in the territory.
"There aren't many turtles left," said former mechanic Ming Chow, who ate his last turtle egg 42 years ago, when he was just 13. "We should really protect them."
Unlawful trade of threatened animals
A green turtle, known to researchers as Hong Kong No. 1, leaves Sham Wan beach after it was tagged with a satellite transmitter.
Even though the beach is officially closed during the nesting season for the turtles, that doesn't mean everybody follows the rules.
An Associated Press reporter recently visited Tung O village, near Sham Wan, and spoke to residents who say city people taking boats out for parties sometimes trespass onto the vacant beach, possibly disturbing the nesting turtles.
Hong Kong conservation official Simon Chan said eight turtles are known to have nested at Sham Wan since 1997. Chan said Hong Kong has stopped the poaching of turtle eggs, but he's worried about the fate of the turtles worldwide.
Some places inhabited by turtles either seem less interested in protecting them or find it hard to tackle the rampant, unlawful trade in the threatened animals.
Turtle butchers still flourish in many places, including the Indonesian island of Bali, where the meat is barbecued at parties and religious gatherings.
China's Hainan Island, a feeding ground for some of the nesting turtles in Hong Kong, also suffers turtle poaching, Chan said.
"If we don't stop people hunting for them and their eggs, if we don't protect them immediately, it's highly likely that they will become extinct," Chan said. "That'll be very sad."
Low survival rates
The male turtles spend their entire lives under the sea.
The females, which swim long distances from their feeding grounds to lay eggs in their birthplace, return to nest only every two to six years. That makes counting the turtles difficult.
But like most marine creatures they are known for low survival rates.
Scientists estimate only one of 1,000 baby green turtles lives into adulthood, Chan said. Those that can grow big, maturing after 20 to 30 years, are able to live more than a century.
In addition to the threats the turtles face from humans seeking eggs, meat, fat, shells and leather, they and their habitats are threatened by trawling, ocean pollution and urban development on seashores.
By shutting the Sham Wan beach, Hong Kong is allowing mother turtles, which are naturally shy about humans and fearful of light, to nest in peace.
The babies take about two months to hatch, and are better able to crawl back into the water without becoming disoriented by lights put up on shore by people.
The first turtle being tracked by satellite, known to researchers as Hong Kong No. 1, has been seen to travel 310 miles (500 kilometers) over 20 days to the coastal city of Wanning on Hainan Island. That area is known for its rich shallow-watered seaweed and seagrass, both staple food for the vegetarian turtles.
By tracking the turtles, conservationists hope to get greater understanding that can help them better protect the species.
Marine park proposal
Although Hong Kong is making a greater effort to preserve the turtles than some places, environmental activists say more should be done here now -- before it's too late.
"They just wait for the turtles to crawl up the beach, but they do so little to protect them when they are underwater," said John Wong, chairman of the Hong Kong Marine Conservation Society. "That's too passive."
Many turtles have been killed by boat propellers and fishing nets in Hong Kong. Wong would like the government to patrol the waters around the turtle nesting area and to limit the speed of passing boats to make the area safer.
Conservationists are calling the government to set up a marine park around Sham Wan that would ban trawlers using nets that can entangle the turtles, while keeping out illegal fishermen and cutting back on pollution.
A spokeswoman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Susanna Ho, said officials finished a study on life in the waters around Lamma Island about a year ago but had not decided if a marine park to protect the animals would be set up.