The way we try to protect turtle eggs is by bringing them to an enclosed hatchery until the baby turtles hatch. This is not ideal, it is much better to leave the eggs in place where they were laid, but that is not possible here now. Still a hatchery should always be viewed as a temporary feature, not a solution. It is better to have the entire area protected and not need to take, or hide, the eggs.
At night we monitor Mentawak beach by taking turns walking the entire length of the beach 3 hours before and 3 hours after high tide. We are looking for a nesting turtle so that we can bring the eggs to the hatchery, as well as tag her to know if this turtle returns for it's next breeding season, or for reference to other projects around the world. While monitoring the beach we are also checking the hatchery for baby turtles that may have hatched.
We also collect and protect eggs from 2 more beaches along the East coast of Tioman. Early each morning during the nesting season, between February and October, we check the hatchery for baby turtles, then go by boat at 7am to look for turtle tracks. We do this boat patrol with a juara family who's been collecting and selling turtle eggs for generations. Now we employ them for their valuable skill and putting it into better use - in conservation of turtles.
If there are fresh tracks on the beach we will go to where the turtle has dug a pit and possibly laid eggs. Once the eggs are located, the sand is dug away to expose the nest. The eggs are carefully removed, being careful not to rotate them. If they get rotated it will likely kill the already developing embryo, also it is important to collect the eggs soon after they are laid for the same reason. They are counted and placed in a poly-styrine with the same orientation as they were laid in the nest. The eggs are brought to hatchery where secondary nests are made to hold them there till the babies come out. The eggs are buried at the specific depth the turtle laid them in for the correct temperature for incubation. This is usually between 50 and 60cm and the temperature must be between 28 and 31 degrees Celsius. The temperature at which the egg is incubated also determines the gender of the turtle. The eggs at the bottom of the nest, also the cooler temperature will produce males, while the warmer temperature will produce females. To monitor the temperature of the sand in the hatchery a temperature logger is buried.
If a nest was originally found in shaded part of a beach, we put the eggs under shade in our hatchery. If they were found in a sunny area, we put them in a nest exposed to sun light.
The hatchery is moved every year so that the nests are in fresh sand. Bacteria and maggots can grow in the old nests which would then contaminate the eggs that are incubating. Also after september, any new nests must be nested further from the ocean to protect them from monsoon waves in November.
The sea turtle eggs will incubate for 7-8 weeks, (1.5 months). Many will hatch at the same time and crawl together upwards, although it is not uncommon for one or two turtles to hatch before or after a group of them hatch. We check the hatchery frequently so that the baby turtles are not spending much time inside the basket outside. We put the turtles into a poly-styrine box with a wet cloth at the bottom and keep them in the dark so that they will sleep and conserve their energy. Immediately we return the baby turtles to the beach where their eggs came from and release them. The same beach is important to maintain the natural situation, if turtles nest at that beach still it is for a reason and we dont want to manipulate them. We want to release the turtles as soon as possible so that their energy is used to swim, and it is their instinct to swim when first born so it is important that they get the chance to. We do not keep the baby turtles because less human interference is better, Turtles can survive just fine without human “help” or interference, what they need is for beapole to leave them alone with more space to live. The turtles have extra energy when they are born, used for swimming out to open water, away from land and natural predators, such as birds and sharks. If you keep the turtles their wasting their energy making them slower and more vulnerable when they are released. Ten days after the last turtle has hatched, we excavate the nest. We dig out the eggs shells to count how many are empty to calculate a hatchling success rate.
But we have to remember, protecting the habitat is equally important from a conservation point of view. Most of our work done to protect the turtles today will show results 25-30 years later. The hatchlings released in to the wild today will come back 30 years later for the first time to lay eggs on the same beach. Now imagine in what state will this beach be 30 years later. Will the scenic Mentawak beach be still be the undeveloped remote beach it is, or will it become just another overdeveloped holiday resort in south-east Asia ? If we cannot protect the habitat, all our efforts in sea turtle conservation is not really worthwhile. The coming generations of turtles will not find a place to nest and that probably be the end of it for the turtles of this island. Right now, we are trying to get a legal sanction to prevent over exploition of this beach and its natural settings but this is a lengthy and on going legal procedure.
(to be continued ...)