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PROTECTING THE SEA TURTLES - Our oceans don’ t have time to wait!

Turtles have been around for over 200 million years, but their survival is now under threat. Of the seven species of sea turtles, six are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species; this list is the most accurate indicator of the health of the world's biodiversity.

Turtles are called an indicator species because they provide vital insights into the health of complex marine ecosystems. Looking at it another way, conserving and preserving turtles has a direct impact on the lives of other marine creatures – and on the whole ocean system. Five of the seven species of sea turtles are found in the Indian Ocean, making Kenya a key conservation country.

Green turtles are Kenya's most populous residents, often spotted resting and relaxing on the reefs – and getting their shells cleaned by the fish. Their favourite foods are found in the sea grass beds in shallower waters where the waves break. Hawksbill turtles also hang out on the reefs, using their sharp beaks to break off pieces of sponge or coral and scraping algae from the rocks. Since their preferred diet is poisonous sponges, their meat is poisonous and people have died from eating it.

Turtles are reptiles, and need air to breathe. Female turtles can mate with several males, so one 'clutch' of eggs is fertilised by multiple males, increasing the genetic diversity of the offspring. They lay their eggs in a pit they've dug deep in the sand. Green turtles lay about 80-120 eggs in a clutch, Olive Ridley turtles lay about 100 while Flatback turtles lay around 50. When hatchlings break out of their shells, a yoke sac is still attached to them; it's this that gives them the energy to scramble to the surface of the sand and sprint for the sea. About half of all baby turtles perish within three days of hatching; only 1 in 1,000 survives.

The three main threats to turtles are plastic, poaching and fishing. Plastic marine debris looks and smells like their food, particularly jellyfish, causing turtles to ingest it or become entangled in it. Poaching is mainly for meat consumption. Fishing, especially industrial fishing with trawlers or baited long lines, drags turtles down and drowns them. Ghost gear is also a threat for turtles. Abandoned or discarded fishing nets travel huge distances on the ocean currents, trapping and killing large numbers of marine animals, entangling live coral, smothering reefs, and transporting parasites to new regions.

Another threat is climate change. Since the sex of the turtle is determined by the temperature of the sand in which it incubates – warmer sand forming females and cooler sand producing males – as the world's temperature rises, the number of female turtles will rise while that of males plummets. A study in Australia in 2017 found that in several nests, 90% of hatchlings were female.

Turtles live in all parts of our seas, including beaches, reefs, sea grass beds, lagoons and the deep dark depths of the oceans. If they disappear, it's a sign our oceans and everything in them are in grave peril.

Local Ocean Conservation is a not-for-profit organisation that has been operating for over 20 years. Their Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, the only such centre in East Africa, monitors and nurses turtles before releasing them into the ocean. Watamu Turtle Watch and Diani Turtle Watch have beach monitors keeping turtles and their nests safe. Other projects include Bycatch Release, Research and Monitoring, Technology Development and Community Development and Outreach. Believing that only when people become aware of the issues can they be solved, the organisation has a Marine Information Centre, an Environmental Education Programme, a Marine Scouts Programme for local children, and an Internship Programme.

The Olive Ridley Project is a team of volunteers, environmentalists and marine biologists around the Indian Ocean, from places as far afield as the Maldives, Kenya, Oman and Pakistan. Their projects include Adopt a Turtle, Sea Turtle Research, and Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation. They conduct in-water assessments of abundance, density and behaviour in key sea turtle hotspot countries. They also collaborate with other turtle projects, local dive centres and fishermen to produce databases of turtle facial identification. One of their major projects studies the impact of ghost gear on sea turtles in the Indian Ocean, in connection with population connectivity and animal movements.

The Marine Education Centre opened in Diani in 2018. In collaboration with the Olive Ridley Project, they're creating a turtle identification database. Marine biologists photograph turtles and identify them from the pattern of their scales which, like a person's fingerprint, is unique to each turtle. Through this they track individual movements and habits. The database was established in July 2018 and has identified 280 green turtles and 31 hawksbill turtles to date. The centre has a team of conservationists raising awareness of environmental issues through education, and is open to visitors every afternoon.

The Lamu Marine Conservation Trust, or LaMCoT, established its turtle project to focus on the tag and release of turtles caught in fishing nets, turtle nest protection and beach patrol. Other projects include Education and Awareness, Information and Community, Tree Planting, Bee Breeding, Protecting the Manda Toto Conservancy and the Camel Project.

Jumba Turtle Patrol, based north of Mombasa, is monitoring turtle nests, and rescuing and releasing turtles. They also have a campaign aimed at the community and further afield, promoting awareness of the importance of turtles.

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