In the dead of night, the turtle makes its way up the sand slowly, leaving a trail like a tyre-track in its wake. Nobody has laid eyes on this reptile since she left this very beach between ten and thirty years ago – but probably nobody saw her even then. She’s spent her entire life swimming to a feeding ground that only she and her fellow turtles know about, but now she’s back to propagate her species. She’ll lay and conceal around 100 eggs in a shallow nest before slipping back into the ocean as surreptiously as she came. And she’ll do this three times a season every three years or so during her breeding life. She’ll live to sixty if she doesn’t get caught in a fishing net before then.
After 50 days incubation, her eggs will hatch – assuming they haven’t been poached – and the baby turtles will make their way immediately into the sea. Somehow, the location of their birth will be etched into their makeup, and the females will be back here in a few decades, if not to this very beach, then to one in the surrounding areas, to take their turn nesting. A mere one in one thousand eggs will become a mature adult turtle.
There are seven marine turtle species living in the Earth’s warmer oceans. All of them are endangered. Four species come to nest on the 15 kilometres of pristine beach on Ko Phra Thorng (Golden Buddha Island) in Thailand’s southern Pha Nga province.
But they don’t come in the great numbers that they would have just decades ago. Their numbers have dropped largely due to humans disturbing nesting sites: for a long time, turtle eggs have been a delicacy and fetched prices large enough to make poaching them a worthwhile endeavour for the inhabitants of the island or passing fishermen.
Many turtles also lose their lives by being accidentally caught in fishing nets. In other areas in Thailand such as Phuket, turtles have lost their nesting grounds due to unbridled development – when a turtle senses bright lights on a beach, she won’t lay there. It’s not known whether she’ll try another beach or whether her eggs will be lost.
But now these secretive creatures might have a better chance of survival, at least in the Andaman’s tropical waters. Italian marine biologist Monica Aureggi has worked on Ko Phra Thorng protecting the turtle nests and educating the locals about the ecological importance of the turtles for the past four nesting seasons, which run from December to May.
Monica, who holds a masters degree in biological conservation, was sent to the island, located about halfway between Phuket and Ranong, by Chelon, an Italian non-government organisation dedicated to the worldwide conservation of marine turtles. A partner in the island’s only resort, Golden Buddha Beach, contacted Chelon to inform them about the turtle nests and to see what they could do to protect them. Chelon organised to work in collaboration with the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, and sent Monica to Ko Phra Thorng where she set up a research and protection station at the resort.
At the start, Monica worked alone and without Thai, yet she still managed to communicate with some of the local people. "We became friends very slowly. For the first two years, I don’t think the people here trusted me. During the third season, a researcher from the Marine Biological Centre came to visit, and I think he realised then that I was a serious researcher. Now we have a much more active collaboration programme."
The Oliver Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is the most common species that comes to Ko Phra Thorng, with nests being found every year by Monica and her ever-changing team of volunteer assistants on their daily patrols along the beaches. The huge Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) also comes to nest, but less predictably, while the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nests rarely. "We had some in 1996 and some late this season, too," Monica says. "The harksbill, the species with the most beautiful carapace, has been reported in the area, but we have never found any nests."
Monica collects painstakingly precise data about the baby turtles, or hatchlings, which are kept in captivity until they are old enough to safely be released into the ocean. When I visit Monica, she is looking after nearly 30 turtles aged from a few weeks to one year old. Two one-year olds have been kept due to illness, while most of the others will be released in a few weeks time. Twelve will be kept as part of a "head start" program, a conservation technique popular in Thailand and other parts of the world, where animals are kept until they are older and sturdier before being released back to their natural habitat.
But there are problems with keeping the turtles in captivity: they become vulnerable to skin lesions and can behave aggressively towards each other. Indeed, one of the one-year-old turtles being kept currently has completely lost a flipper due to another turtle’s aggression. "Ideally they should be kept in separate tanks," Monica explains. "But we simply don’t have the facilities here to do that."
Monica emphasises that she is not a veterinarian. "I don’t really like to keep them for a long time. Plenty of things can go wrong. I check regularly for viruses and bacteria, I change their water daily. I carefully monitor their food intake. If you overfeed them, algae can grow on their carapace, attracting bacteria." Two turtles have died under her care due to lung problems.
Monica and her volunteers have an arduous job. From December they rise daily at 4:30 am to patrol the beaches, looking for the tell-tale trails which will lead to a nest. Ideally, the nests are not moved, but marked so everybody can be aware that the area shouldn’t be disturbed. During the day they work on looking after the turtles which have already hatched. Monica says the work is physically very difficult during the peak of the season from December to February. "I almost physically collapse by February," she says.
Volunteers who visit the island from overseas pay for their own flights, accommodation (provided at Golden Buddha Beach Resort) and food, and make a payment to Chelon to assist in the funding of their projects. The volunteers stay for a minimum of two weeks, and some have stayed for up to two months.
No Thai volunteers have as yet been to Ko Phra Thorng, which is something Monica would like to see changed. "Thai volunteers will still need to pay for their accommodation and expenses, but they don’t need to make any payment to Chelon. Ideally, this whole project should be taken over by locals," she says.
This season, only one Green and seven Olive Ridley nests have been found – in the previous two seasons 12 to 15 were found. She says the numbers were also low during her first season, four years ago, and that this could be a natural cycle – but nothing can be deduced with certainty. The long life span of the turtles makes studying their habits a long term commitment.
Keeping the turtles in captivity gives Monica an opportunity to practically teach the local children about them. She instigated an education project with the help of the Marine Biological Centre in three schools, one in each of the island’s villages, soon after arriving. "You can’t just tell people to stop doing things. You have to explain why it is a good idea not to poach the eggs. Once people understand, they are usually helpful."
This year, the programme involved giving three lessons in each school on the turtles, with the fourth lesson falling on Children’s Day in January. A special turtle release day was organised, where the children released the turtles that had been saved into the ocean. "I think everyone enjoyed that part of the program very much," Monica says.
The efforts of everyone involved are finally showing signs of success. "People now keep the nests safe when they find them, and they call me if they see any poaching taking place. There has been no evidence of poaching this year."
But the deaths of turtles caught in fishing nets is continuing. Monica hopes to get funding, perhaps from the United Nations Environment Programme or another environmental organisation, for Turtle Exclusionary Devices to be fitted to the nets of fishemen who fish the area, which would effectively allow the turtles to escape. "I would like to start going to the pier to talk to the fishermen and encourage them to bring any turtles they catch to me. People say I’m crazy but I think they would be reasonable when they understand the animals are so endangered."
Currently Monica is studying the effects of sand temperature on the determination of an embryo’s sex – a study that will need to continue for at least three years before yielding any results. Furthermore, she plans to start tagging and tracking the turtles. Following the end of this season, she will also work on articles to be translated into Thai and published in local scientific journals. "I want more Thai scientists to be aware of what’s happening to turtle populations here."
And Monica will be here for seasons to come. "I will keep doing this job indefinitely. I have such a strong passion for the job!"