In love with Lanka, Alex returns to give care to turtles

Saskia Fernando introduces young artist Pala Pothupitiye whose work is already on permanent display at the Fukoka Asian Art Museum, as ‘one to watch’
By Megara Tegal and Smriti Daniel

The Kosgoda turtle hatchery is hard to miss. Though it takes up just a few metres of the beach, the sign post and cement built pools are a curious oddity that will capture your attention as you drive along the road.

Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

Manning the modest roadside non-profit hatchery is Alex Kemal (26), a young Britisher with a passion for animals and preserving endangered species. In fact it was her passion for animals that fuelled her solo trip across oceans to arrive in Sri Lanka and start work at a turtle conservation hatchery. “I visited Sri Lanka a few years ago and fell in love with the country.

It was during that visit that I came across a turtle hatchery and I said to myself that I would return and help in the conservation of the turtles,” says Alex.

As soon as she completed her degree in History, she worked towards fulfilling her desire to conserve the gentle marine reptiles that have been around far before humans meandered into the earth, but are now facing extinction. “I want to help endangered animals because I feel it’s not fair. Turtles for instance, have been here since the time of dinosaurs, and now people are driving them towards extinction. Two of the most endangered species of turtles we’ve got here are the green turtle that is hunted for its meat and eggs and the leatherback turtle that’s hunted for its shell,” she says.

“What we do here is buy eggs from people who’ve dug them up around the beach, allow these eggs to hatch and once their shells harden, we release the baby turtles into the ocean. We don’t release them immediately as they hatch because they are very vulnerable with their soft shells making them easy prey,” explains Alex, adding, “only 1 in 1000 turtles reaches adulthood and it’s sad that these adult turtles are killed for their meat.”

Her work involves feeding the turtles, taking care of them and giving tours of the hatchery to visitors while educating them about the endangered reptiles.

Visitors at the Kosgoda turtle hatchery

While she gently exfoliates the shell of a two- year-old turtle injured turtle with a scoop of fine sea sand, she explains how the process is necessary for the turtles in the hatchery as in the ocean the fish feed on fungal growths on the turtles’ shells. Placing it back in the water she says, “the turtles and I have become good friends now,” adding with a fond smile “I go around talking to them throughout the day”.

Next on her agenda, she hopes to visit India and help in the effort to take tigers off the endangered animals list. Alex is in Sri Lanka through the LEO Project Foundation. “I prefer working for smaller organisations instead of a larger organisation where the money gets filtered and doesn’t reach the cause,” she says.

The beginnings of the hatchery

The Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery was established by Dudley Perera in 1988. When Dudley was made aware of illegal activities carried out by the villagers in the area he was moved to build the hatchery. “Kosgoda is an area in Sri Lanka where turtles lay their eggs. As an animal lover I wanted to protect the turtles because the villagers in the area used to dig up eggs and sell them in the black market as well as kill them for their meat,” explains Dudley.

Adding that such illegal activity prevails even today, he said the Ahungalla police seized 98 turtles being sold in the black market on January 19.

In December of 2004 the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery was completely wiped out by the tsunami. Rebuilding of the hatchery has been a slow process and continues even today. Dudley receives help from volunteers who are mostly Europeans as not many Sri Lankans seem to share the passion.

Over the years the Kosgoda turtle hatchery has helped protect turtles found in Sri Lankan seas. They include the Green turtle, Hawks Bill, Loggerhead and the Olive Ridley turtle.

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