In Thailand, the Return of the Leatherbacks
The nationwide coronavirus lockdown may be helping boost the numbers of endangered turtles.
PHUKET, THAILAND — Noppadol Ninlaboot recalls the day when, taking his customary pre-dawn jog along the beach near his home, he came across a rare leatherback turtle crawling across the sand to lay its eggs. The last time anyone reported seeing a live leatherback in Phuket was eight years ago, says the longtime resident of the largest island in Thailand.
“At first I thought I was going to take the eggs back and eat them,” Noppadol says.
As tourists gathered around, Noppadol realized he needed to take a different course of action. He phoned a former village official and was advised not to take the eggs. Meanwhile, the turtle proceeded to dig a hole in the sand and laid her eggs – 111 in all.
Leatherbacks are among one of seven species of sea turtles listed as either vulnerable or endangered, and the leatherback is one of the most threatened in Thailand. On the island of Phuket, a popular international tourist destination in southern Thailand, the turtles are threatened primarily because of illegal trade, fisheries bycatch, coastal development and the impact of global warming, which can damage habitats and even alter the sex ratios of the animals.
But the fortunes of Thailand’s leatherback turtles may be changing, and the global coronavirus pandemic could be playing a role. National park officials say they have found the highest number of leatherback turtle nests in the country in decades – 11 nests, dating back to November. The decline of the country’s lucrative tourism industry, including a ban on international flights and the closure of some beaches amid the COVID-19 pandemic, may be encouraging more turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs, conservation officials say.
Patrols Search and Guard Turtle Eggs
To address the population decline in leatherbacks, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) has set up a reward system, offering people who report turtle sightings with a 20,000-baht ($615) reward. Noppadol did not know about the reward, or that he could have faced up to five years in prison or a 500,000-baht fine had he stolen the eggs.
Noppadol’s jogging buddy, Manop Tarueraksa, joined him that fateful morning. “I saw it (the turtle) crawl up, at around 5 a.m.,” Manop says, waving his arms to imitate the reptile. “It spun and spun and waded in the sand for 10-15 minutes to make its nest site.”
For almost an hour, the turtle dug in the sand. Finally, when the hole was big enough, she began laying her eggs. Once done, she covered up the pit with sand, using her bulk to pack the egg chamber and brushing it over with a final touch of fine sand. She then crawled back to the shore and swam out to sea, never to return to see her young hatch.
Around 7 a.m. that day, national park officers arrived to dig and carry away the eggs to Nai Yang Beach in front of Sirinat National Park, about 4 1/2 miles from Nai Thon Beach, where the turtle had laid her eggs.
At their new home, the eggs are now surrounded by two layers of fencing to protect them from getting flooded by high tides or crushed by tourists. Their mother is long gone, but eight officers sit nearby, guarding the eggs for the next two months until they hatch and the newborns run off to the open ocean to begin a new life.
Throughout those months, six surveillance cameras are fed to a livestream – showing the static scene of plain sand — to the Thai public. Officers now patrol the beach, sometimes up to three shifts a night, on the lookout for the return of the mother turtle, since leatherbacks tend to return to lay their next batch of eggs two or three more times.
Breaking the Custom of Turtle Eggs as Food
Not long ago, locals would patrol the beach looking for leatherbacks during their laying season between November and February. But their purpose was to take home the eggs to eat. It was called the “turtle walking” tradition.
Noppadol says he and his family used to buy 100 to 200 eggs a year under a concession from the National Park office, as long as they left a quarter of them to hatch.
“Let’s not blame them,” Prarop Plaenggnarn, director of the Sirinat National Park, says. “Some things are old customs.”
Even Prarop says that he ate turtles as a child, long before he became a park director. “Turtle meat is very tender. It’s delicious. I’ve had it before,” he says.
“When I was little, they’d sell the turtle eggs like chicken eggs.”
But as Phuket’s population and the number of tourists grew — the island attracted nearly 10 million visitors in 2019, according to the latest Global Destination Cities Index — the number of turtles began to dwindle. By 1982, the concession for turtle eggs ended; there were simply none left to take.
“We know for sure that (turtle) population has sharply declined,” conservation scientist Petch Manopawitr said via email. “Our nesting information showed more than a 99% drop in the number of nests in the last 60 years.”
Turtle Is Designated a ‘Preserved Species’
The current nesting rate – the percentage of nests that successfully hatch at least one egg – for leatherbacks is less than 1%. Scientists estimate that only about one in a thousand hatchlings survive to maturity.
According to Petch, the biggest threats to leatherback turtles are getting caught in the nets of fishermen, the illegal harvesting of eggs and turtles, coastal development that destroys nesting sites, and plastic trash and other pollution.
Climate change also plays a significant role. As the ocean temperature rises, ocean acidification can increase and cause marine ecosystems to collapse.
In 1992, leatherbacks became classified as “protected” species under Thailand’s Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act. Finally, after years of pressure from conservationists, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives declared them a “preserved” species, a more critical status, on the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act 2019.
A Collaborative Preservation Effort
Today, many turtles have been found, rescued and sent to rehabilitation at the Phuket Marine Biological Center. For up to a year before their release, these turtles swim around in blue rectangular plastic pools, recovering after being found injured by fishing nets. Some are missing a flipper or two, others left with a bent beak.
The Department of National Parks also is helping bring back sea turtles in other parts of Thailand.
Days after the leatherback laid her eggs at Nai Thon Beach, nearly 100 leatherback hatchlings emerged from their shells at the Phang-nga Bay National Park hatchery, about 20 miles to the northeast.
As a crowd of residents and tourists gathered to watch, the baby turtles crawled down the beach to the sea and swam away.
“I think Thailand has done really well in terms of protecting what we have left,” Prarop says. “We’re starting to see a collaborative effort between communities, the private sector and the government working together on this.”
Additional reporting from Nicholas Cobain.
This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.