Sea turtles are making a comeback in Bali


All animals are special, but the sea turtle is the only species in the world that connects the open ocean and land. Photo:

A large green sea turtle wallows listlessly in a tiled pool, missing a fin that had to be amputated after it got snared in a fishing net off the Indonesian island of Bali.

Despite the creature’s forlorn appearance, it is one of the lucky ones and is expected to recover before being returned to the sea – and the multiple dangers that await it there.

“Sea turtles are threatened in many different ways,” says Eddy Wayan, who has volunteered at the Turtle Conservation And Education Center (TCEC) sanctuary in Serangan, in Denpasar, Bali, since 2009.

Other rescued specimens lying in adjacent tanks were injured in their natural habitat by man-made objects like boat propellers, fishing hooks or nets. Eating plastic proves fatal to some animals, and the depletion of the remaining turtle species is also due to culinary traditions.

“They are hunted mostly for their meat, which is being eaten as soups, skewers or lawar, a traditional dish made of vegetables, spices and meat,” he says.

Additionally, the dappled shells of the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles are used to make jewellery, sunglasses, musical instruments, combs, buttons or smartphone cases.

However, a deeper existential threat used to face the turtles on Bali, which is celebrated as the domain of the gods. The island’s human inhabitants practise their own form of Hinduism with special rituals, and the turtles, which have populated the planet for 150 million years, play a major role in Hindu mythology.

This meant their dying for the gods in ceremonies and rituals where they were cut up alive and their body parts were buried in temple foundations.

It is largely thanks to the centre on Serangan, which is connected to the Balinese mainland by a dam, that the turtles are no longer hauled from the sea for such practices. Today, the animals involved are almost always unharmed.

Bali's Turtle Conservation And Education Center (TCEC) where activists are working to help the endangered creatures. Photo: Carola Frentzen/dpaBali's Turtle Conservation And Education Center (TCEC) where activists are working to help the endangered creatures. Photo: Carola Frentzen/dpa

Crucially, it was possible to sensitise both the population and tourists to the creatures. And while accidents with propellers and fishing hooks still happen, people now know who to turn to.

“We have a 24-hour hotline where people can call us and tell us about injured animals and their position,” says Wayan, looking lovingly at a “patient” who is poking his head out of the water.

Turning things around

Until a few years ago, Serangan was the hub of the illegal turtle trade. Veterinarian Ida Bagus Windia Adnthings yana, better known as Gus Win, made a huge contribution to shutting down this legacy.

Since the late 1990s, the lecturer in veterinary medicine has worked for WWF Indonesia, leading the campaign to protect sea turtles and stop the illegal trade, especially in Bali.

The TCEC was created for this purpose in 2006 and cares for three of the seven surviving species: Green sea turtles, hawksbill sea turtles and olive ridley turtles.

“The TCEC harnesses the potential of education, ecotourism, conservation and research, with development of small-scale businesses, to give endangered turtles one more chance on Serangan,” says Gus Win, who conducts regular training courses on sea turtle conservation management. Whole school classes come here to learn about the animals.

The result is impressive: The illegal trade in sea turtles has decreased significantly in Bali, and most Balinese now know that turtles should not be consumed. A big step forward was the adaptation of religious rituals to protect the turtles.

The TCEC provides specimens for ceremonies in consultation with Hindu priests, but everything is strictly regulated and the turtles may not be harmed.

Keystone species

The TCEC, which is financed by donations, also has a dedicated area for turtle eggs rescued from beaches. Here the young animals can hatch in safety and are released into the sea a few days later.

For a few euros, visitors can symbolically “adopt” a baby turtle and release it into the wild. “But very few survive as there are many natural enemies, like predators,” says Wayan.

The other patients are also returned to the sea when they are strong enough, which in itself is no easy task for the helpers. An adult green sea turtle can weigh around 180kg and it takes five or six strong men to lift a specimen.

But back they must go: Sea turtles are a “keystone species” and removing them from a habitat disrupts the natural order, says Gus Win. Hawksbill sea turtles, for example, help the reefs by eating sponges that compete with the coral for space.

Sea turtles help beaches with nesting because the nutrients left behind by eggs and non-surviving hatchlings are important for coastal vegetation. And the juveniles themselves are food for many fish and birds.

“All animals are special, but the sea turtle is the only species in the world that connects the open ocean and land,” says Gus Win. “They exist to play their part in the interconnected chain of life. Healthy oceans need sea turtles.” – dpa

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