The Sunday TimesPlus

5th December 1997



Shell shock for turtles

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Turtles are not the first animals that come to our minds when we talk of wildlife in Sri Lanka. But what most people are yet unaware of, is that the shores of this country are breeding grounds for five of the world's eight species of turtle. This makes the island a very important conservation zone for the animals whose numbers are dwindling .But unfortunately, turtle breeding here, has declined drastically through the years due to the actions of people living in their favourite grounds in the South and South -Western coasts.

According to the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP), a non- governmental organisation working in the turtle breeding areas, the biggest threat to these gentle marine animals is the collection of eggs. People collect turtle eggs as a culinary delicacy and sell them to tourist hotels and restaurants that are aplenty in the same locality. Surveys done by the TCP have revealed that during the last 20 years, almost all the marine turtle nests along the south and South-West coasts have been robbed of their eggs by poachers. This alarming figure means that the population of these animals has not been replenished in two decades.

If this situation is bad, worse news is yet ahead. Not only are the turtle eggs robbed and younger turtles prevented from seeing the light of day, but those alive are killed ruthlessly to obtain their shells. Tortoiseshell ornaments are high priced gift items sold mostly at tourist shops in Colombo, other major towns and tourist destinations like Hikkaduwa and Negombo. Selling tortoise shell is illegal in Sri Lanka. The preventive act, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance is enforced by the Wildlife Department., and prohibits people from capturing, killing and trading in any parts of the animal, which is given protection by law. But how ineffective the law really is, is quite visible when one consider the amount of shell trading that goes on every year, right under the noses of the authorities.

Last year, after much glaring media publicity here and abroad, the Ceylon Tourist Board, Customs Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation all focussed their attention on the thriving tortoise shell trade- occurring in Colombo city and other tourist resort areas. With increased fervour the authorities began to warn retailers and tourists against selling and buying of

Tortoise shell products. An environmental NGO called EIA demonstrated in England asking British tourists to boycott Sri Lanka as a tourist destination because the country allows trade in tortoise shell products. An environmental tabloid pointed out that the state owned ÔLaksalaÕ handicraft shop was one of the retail outlets for this illegal trade. All this publicity wave caused a general drop in the sale of turtle shell products in several towns and tourist destinations during the last year.

But the problem is far from over. There are still some 83 shops openly selling tortoise shell. These products are either displayed in the shops and sold outright or produced from the stores when requested or supplied to order. One very prominent handicraft shop in Colombo, when the TCP investigator visited it asking for tortoiseshell products, said that they do not sell it Ô because the government has banned itÕ. But then salespeople asking the visitor to wait for a few minutes, produced a tray full of ornate tortoiseshell. When questioned about the customs regulations the shop personnel had told the visitor that the shop would not issue a receipt for the purchase and if questioned requested the visitor not to divulge the source of the product. Tortoiseshell products are made from the shell of one species- the Hawksbill Turtle. The process of extracting the shell naturally leads to the death of the animal although some craftsmen deny that the animal needs to be killed to obtain the scutes (shell). What happens is that the animal is held inverted over a fire, which melts away the tissues connecting the shell to the body. Although local belief has it that the shell regenerates, scientific information has it that the practice is fatal for the animal.

An interesting aspect to the whole tortoiseshell trade is that neither the craftsmen nor the shops selling the products actually depend solely on the trade for their livelihood. In other words, the elimination of the trade in total will not drastically affect either party. Further the government has, successively shown interest in curbing the trade. After last yearÕs exposure in the national and international media, the Tourist Board and the Department of Wildlife conservation geared up to action. The Ceylon Tourist Board appointed a Ôtask forceÕ bringing together members of the Police, Hoteliers Association, Wildlife Department and Customs to deal with the problem. The Department of Wildlife Conservation conducted several raids on shops selling turtle products. The Task Force corresponded with some 325 retail tourist shops registered with the CTB asking them to avoid selling, storing or displaying any tortoiseshell.

The Customs Department also played a role in the fight against the turtle trade. They printed and distributed a leaflet advising tourists coming into the country against the purchase of forbidden animal/bird/ insect products. Under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, any person found guilty of destroying marine turtle eggs or hatcheries and possessing the eggs or any part of the animal is an offence liable to be fined Rs. 10,000 and/or a prison term of not less than two years.

In a very ironic twist, it was reported last year that the government handicraft outlet ÔLaksalaÕ was selling tortoiseshell. Although tortoiseshell is not sold at the Laksala in Fort anymore, craftsmen supplying to the handicrafts board are seen contributing to the trade, in spite of government efforts.

The Ministry of Environment also came up with a plan to reward informers and those Wildlife Department personnel involved in raids.

The Turtle Conservation Project , in addition to their surveys on turtle shell products, also conducts awareness programmes and monitoring projects in areas where the turtles nest. School children and university students in the southern coastal area assist authorities to help out 25 community members who depend on the collection and sale of turtle eggs. TCP also conducts English classes for the fisher community to improve their employment prospects so that they will not resort to the turtle trade.

Although government initiative to curb this illicit trade is certainly promising, there is yet a need for a more integrated approach to the whole problem. Whatever the laws, the government is not capable of handling it alone. The public has a duty to help government efforts to curb trade in turtle products and ensure safe breeding grounds for turtles, by boycotting tortoiseshell products and providing information on any illegal activity to the Wildlife Department. Until this happens, the turtles will still be under grave threat.

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