Hope stirs with ev­ery hatch­ling as an old friend of Thai­land re­turns from sea



THE NEWS from Kuek Kak Beach on the Phang-nga coast in mid-Fe­bru­ary de­lighted ma­rine ecologist Thon Tham­rong­nawa­sawat. Twenty newly hatched leatherback tur­tles had clawed their way out of their sandy nest and made it to the sea.

The baby tur­tles’ emer­gence from eggs laid in late De­cem­ber sig­nalled the re­turn to Thai waters of an en­dan­gered species af­ter sev­eral anx­ious years.

There was more cheer­ing news. An­other 29 hatched soon af­ter, al­though this group needed hu­man help get­ting to the sur­face of the sand.

But, al­to­gether, 49 in­fants had emerged from a sin­gle mother’s 118 eggs.

“It was the first time in five years that leatherback eggs had been laid on a Thai beach,” Thon said. “We can’t say much at this point about what it ac­tu­ally means, but at least it’s a pos­i­tive sign that the species has re­turned to Thai­land. This is re­ally good news.”

For a ma­rine ecologist, the species’ come­back says a great deal about the con­ser­va­tion work that re­mains to be done amid con­tin­u­ing chal­lenges such as the pro­lif­er­a­tion of plas­tic waste in the sea. Leatherback tur­tles are among the ma­rine species most sen­si­tive to en­vi­ron­men­tal threats and thus serve as ef­fec­tive in­di­ca­tors of the sea’s health. Plas­tic is a ma­jor hazard for them be­cause they feed on jel­ly­fish and can eas­ily mis­take a plas­tic bag for their favourite food.

Leatherbacks are among four tur­tle species in lo­cal waters. The oth­ers are olive ri­d­leys, hawk­bills and green tur­tles.

Tur­tles spend al­most all of their time in the sea, the fe­males emerg­ing when preg­nant to lay eggs on what ap­pear to be care­fully se­lected beaches. The hatched off­spring clam­ber into the sea and the fe­males, fer­tile at around 15 years of age, will re­turn to the place of their birth with a brood of their own. Un­der cover of dark­ness, they dig a wide hole in the sand and de­posit 100 or more eggs.

But all it would take to de­ter them at this sen­si­tive mo­ment would be the beam of a sin­gle flash­light, Thon said.

The re­mote beaches of the Thai South were once so favoured by tur­tles – the sands might be pock­marked with up to 1,000 nests at a time – that con­ces­sions were com­monly granted to col­lect the eggs for sale.

That prac­tice ended when the egglay­ing

ac­tiv­ity de­clined, but hu­mans con­tin­ued poach­ing eggs even af­ter it be­came il­le­gal.

More re­cent times have added the threat of tourism, with beaches on pop­u­lar is­lands be­com­ing over­crowded, scar­ing off most large ma­rine crea­tures.

Mean­while 300 sea tur­tle car­casses have washed ashore in re­cent years, many of the vic­tims gashed by boat pro­pel­lers and stran­gled, starved or as­phyx­i­ated by plas­tic they swal­lowed.

“From 2000 to 2015 was the worst time be­cause there were hardly any re­ports of egg-lay­ing. Ma­rine ecol­o­gists al­most lost hope,” Thon re­called in a re­cent Face­book post.

Tur­tle con­ser­va­tion cen­tres and zones were des­ig­nated to pre­vent their ex­tinc­tion in Thai­land, rais­ing hopes some­what.

The Na­tional Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly amended the law on wildlife pro­tec­tion to list leatherback tur­tles as a pre­served species along with three other ma­rine crea­tures, among them whale sharks.

Kuek Kak Beach is close to Thai Muang, where the sand once trem­bled with mul­ti­tudes of hatch­ing leatherbacks. All the ef­fort to bring them back ap­pears to have paid off.

The pub­lic fo­cus has now shifted to keep­ing plas­tic waste out of the sea, fur­ther en­sur­ing their survival. To keep it from reach­ing the sea, it has to be elim­i­nated on land, or at least greatly re­duced.

The World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, cit­ing a Helmholtz Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search study, last year claimed that 90 per cent of the plas­tic pol­lut­ing the oceans – more than 8 mil­lion tonnes – is car­ried there from just 10 rivers.

Two of the rivers are in Africa – the Nile and the Niger – and all the rest in Asia, in­clud­ing the Mekong.

Thai­land’s Coastal and Ma­rine Re­sources Depart­ment, in sta­tis­tics for 2017, found 23 coastal prov­inces gen­er­at­ing 11.47 mil­lion tonnes of house­hold trash, of which 60 per cent was “prop­erly dis­posed” and three mil­lion tonnes re­cy­cled.

That left 1.55 mil­lion tonnes adrift and out of con­trol, and 340,000 tonnes of it was plas­tic – mostly sin­gle-use bags, bot­tles and straws. The depart­ment counted 60 rivers that could po­ten­tially carry the plas­tic into the sea.

The Thai au­thor­i­ties ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem of ma­rine plas­tic two years ago, Thon said, promis­ing the United Na­tions in a for­mal state­ment that they would find so­lu­tions.

Since then, Thai­land has hosted na­tional and re­gional meet­ings on the is­sue, vow­ing to its Asean part­ners that the amount of plas­tic trash would be cut by up to half in the next 10 years.

At last month’s Special Asean Min­is­te­rial Meeting on Ma­rine De­bris, the “Bangkok Dec­la­ra­tion” to com­bat the prob­lem was tabled for pre­sen­ta­tion at the Asean Sum­mit in June.

Na­tional pan­els on re­form and strat­egy re­gard­ing nat­u­ral re­sources and the en­vi­ron­ment have also ad­dressed the is­sue in their plans. A sub-panel of the na­tional en­vi­ron­ment board is di­rectly ad­dress­ing the plas­tic is­sue, he said.

It has pro­duced a road map with a time­line and goals for re­duc­ing plas­tic use and banning some plas­tic prod­ucts. Among the items tar­geted with bans this year are cap seals, so-called oxo-degrad­able plas­tic and mi­crobeads. Foam-based food con­tain­ers and sin­gle-use plas­tic bags and straws are due to van­ish in 2021 and 2022.

The pri­vate sec­tor and civil so­ci­ety have as­sisted the gov­ern­ment through pub­lic-aware­ness cam­paigns and the in­tro­duc­tion of a “circular eco­nomic model”, Thon said.

“I think we’re on track, but it needs to be stepped up to keep pace with the prob­lem,” he said. “And this ef­fort can’t pro­ceed on its own – sev­eral things need to be done in par­al­lel. The new lease on life we’ve given an­i­mals like leatherback tur­tles should be a good re­minder of what else needs to be done.”

The good news con­tin­ues to trickle in. Three leatherbacks that laid eggs on Thai beaches since late last year have to­gether pro­duced 127 off­spring, and one olive ri­d­ley gave birth to an­other 68.

But just last week, once again, a ma­ture green tur­tle was found dead on the shore, its stom­ach en­gorged with plas­tic.

Leatherback tur­tle hatch­lings on Kuek Kak Beach on the Phang-nga coast.

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