Resort plays parent to Green Sea Turtles

Posted: 14 January 2002

For many years, tourism development has been blamed for the decline of turtles in the 1,190 Maldive islands, alongside the demand for tortoiseshell products, turtle eggs and turtle meat. Now turtles are protected by law, and one award-winning eco-tourist resort is taking a lead in saving the endangered Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia Mydas). John Rowley reports.

Staff at two Banyan Tree eco-tourism resorts in the Maldives are looking forward with mixed feelings to June 2002 when, after a year of careful surrogate parenting, over 50 Green Sea Turtles will be released from their nurseries into the open sea.turtlesNewly-hatched baby turtles making their way to the sea© Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts

The story began in May last year when a female Green Sea Turtle chose the new Angsana Resort, and its neighbouring Spa Resort (five minutes away by speedboat), on the island of Ihuru, to lay eggs in three nests.

Listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) not a great deal is known about the early life stages of this species. So, with the approval of the Ministry of Fisheries, and the support of local and international wildlife foundations, Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru began research which could help to save the Green Sea Turtle from extinction.

"Based on our findings, we hope to heighten our understanding of the nature of Green Sea Turtles and to develop new nesting sites in the Maldives" said Mr Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem, a marine life consultant to the Resort and Spa, who is in charge of the project.

Life cycle

An experienced conservationist, Mr Azeez, also hopes the project will heighten awareness of endangered species and stimulate genuine eco-tourism in the Maldives. "We have started bringing school children to the islands, explaining our project to them and showing them slides of the various stages in the life cycle of Green Sea Turtles" he added.

Under normal conditions, only about one in 1,000 turtle hatchlings survive the first year of life, so for the purposes of the project, 10 per cent of the hatchlings were retained, while the rest made their way to the sea. Now every stage of their progress is being monitored, including the ratio of males to females, the size of the shell, weight, growth rate, food intake and preference, and behaviour.

A turtle specialist, Dr Nicholas Pilcher, from Sarawak University, Malaysia, has advised on the design and care of the turtle nurseries. The two nurseries are submerged in a quiet part of the lagoons, surrounded by a plastic mesh to keep our predators. The intention is to create as natural an environment as possible, with a constant flow of seawater, natural daylight and moon phase rhythms, a natural climate, adequate space for free roaming, and interaction with other marine creatures in the reef, including reef fish and coral. The turtles are fed twice a day on a menu of fresh fish, tuna eggs and lettuce.Baby turtles feeding© Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts

Snorkelling safaris

Direct interaction with humans is kept to a minimum, but guests at the two resorts do take part in escorted snorkelling safaris, and can catch a glimpse of the turtles swimming in their enclosures. They are welcome to collect a kind of filamentos seaweed as a natural food for the turtles.

Guests also have an opportunity to join in other ecological activities at the resorts. These include marine biology classes, given by Mr Azeez, coral transplanting using marine cement and joining in the NAPWATCH project to collect data, while diving, on the endangered Napoleon Wrasse fish.

Barnacle project

Angsana Maldives Ihuru is also involved in reef cleaning to remove predatory species, such as the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, and reef regeneration efforts, including the Barnacle Project to encourage a naturally forming limestone which is an ideal foundation on which corals can flourish and the Lotus Project to encourage sunlight to penetrate the reef waters.

The latest initiative, beginning in 2002, is a Green Imperative Fund, under which each guest contributes $1 per room night for community-base environmental action, a sum which is matched dollar-for-dollar by Banyan Tree.

Banyan Tree has resorts in Thailand, the Maldives and Indonesia and has plans for expansion in The Seychelles, Nepal and Mexico. In 2001, it won the Green Planet award from Kuoni and the Pacific Asia Travel Gold Award for the Top Corporate Environmental Programme. For more information see www.banyantree.com