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March 24, 2015

Sukamade, the Beginning of Turtles' Life Journey

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Four baby turtles crawled to the open sea at Sukamade Beach 

Sukamade, a secluded village within Meru Betiri National Park in East Java, Indonesia is the birthplace of thousands of rare sea turtles. With its status as a conservation area, this place serves as a safe haven where the lifetime journey of some rare turtles begins.

The flat and vast landscape of Sukamade Beach is covered in soft, fine-grained sand, making it an ideal place for rare turtles to lay their eggs. Out of six species of turtles recorded in Indonesia, four of them can be found in Sukamade; Chelonia mydas, Eretmochelys imbricata, Lepidochelys olivaceae, and Dermochelys coriaceae. Their struggle for life kicks off right in the nights when their mothers land on the beach, dig the holes in the sand, and lend the precious ping-pong ball-like eggs to the earth.

The birth of the turtles looks like a beautiful ritual. Even though the step-by-step process is obviously unwritten, it seems that all turtles follow the same set of standard operation procedures so they uniformly know what to do. In the darkness, under the dim, star-studded sky, a mother turtle rises to the beach. Soon after it lands on the beach and finds the ideal place for its eggs, it sways its back flippers in rhythmic rowing motions to dig a nesting hole. Into that hole, the mother turtle lays the eggs, and before leaving, it carefully buries them in the sand and digs another camouflage hole to deceive the predators.

Every night, Meru Betiri National Park's rangers patrol along the beach to spot and save the newly laid eggs. They wait patiently until the whole ritual is accomplished. The rangers will then approach the turtle, measure its size, check if it has a tag, and take a record of the landing. With turtle tagging in the National Park started in the 1980's it is not uncommon for them to encounter some returning old-comers.

As soon as the turtle leaves, the rangers dig the egg hole, count the eggs, and transport them to the hatchery. This routine is done to keep track of the turtle population and to help protect those eggs from predators, hence increasing the survival opportunities of the turtles.

Between 2008 and 2012 the National Park Authority recorded 8,114 turtles landed on this beach to lay their eggs. 7,932 of them were Chelonia mydas, locally named "penyu hijau" - literally means "green turtle" (Jejak Betiri, 2013).

The sand bed at the hatchery. Each sign shows the number of eggs underneath and the types of the turtles. The buckets seen on the left side are the ones used by the rangers to transport the eggs from the beach to this hatchery. 
With each turtle able to produce 100 - 150 eggs, the total number of eggs seems plenty. However, as they hatch, the baby turtles immediately face the harsh environment. The guidebook from the National Park says that out of 1,000 turtles released to the sea, only one will survive. Some even die as soon as they get out of their shell, as black ants mercilessly bite them right at the sand bed where they were born. The first batch of survivors are soon to be moved to the saltwater aquarium where they stay for 2 - 3 days, until later, the rangers or visitors release them at the beach.

Baby turtles in the bucket, on the way to the beach

Late afternoon is the best window time for the turtle-releasing trip. According to the ranger I met, around this time of the day, predator birds have finished hunting while the night predators are still out of sight. Tens of baby turtles are piled in black plastic buckets, and some 50 meters away from the water, we can gently put them on the ground.

"We are not supposed to release them right in the water", our ranger said. "We should let them have the memory of their beach so that some twenty years from now they can come back and remember this place."

Some baby turtles got confused and ran around before they went straight to the ocean :)
Some turtles that I released looked confused. They ran around for a while but soon they crawled straight to the ocean. I always find it amazing that animals have the instinct to go to their natural habitat, that turtles will only lay their eggs right where they were born, and that they can be back to their birthplace after more than twenty years of traversing the world's ocean.

The turtle conservation story in Sukamade, however, is not all about a happy story. I have noticed how the increasing number of tourists, and unethical attitudes of the tour guides discouraged mother turtles from coming by and potentially disturbing the conservation efforts.

Meru Betiri offers a night program where visitors can see turtles laying their eggs. One condition regulated by the rangers is that no light and sound are allowed.
"If turtles see some light or hear suspicious sounds, they can cancel their trip to this beach. They will not lay their eggs here."
So I sat quietly on the beach, enjoying only the sound of the waves and the bright stars above. We were told that we would only move when the rangers told us so.

Just when I thought everyone would follow the rules, some tourists lit up their mobile phone screens. These days, some people just can only live by getting on their phones. The rangers warned them, and they turned their phones off.

The "road" to Sukamade. There were no bridges in the two rivers that we had to pass. Even though it is not easy to get there, every day tens of tourists come to Sukamade to witness the turtle landing 

The turtle at work. It buries the newly laid eggs in the sand.

The rangers measured the turtles, predicted their age, and clipped the tag on its flipper.

The ranger collected the newly laid eggs
Later, we were told that a mother turtle was already in the middle of her egg-laying procession. Some tour guides, wanting to please their guests, lit up their giant flashlights onto the turtle.
"If you want to take photos, go ahead."
Some ignorant tourists pushed their shutter buttons. Some even used the flash. Some did the selfies. Some just wanted their face to be in the picture, with the hardworking turtle in their background. Rangers told them to stop, but they just did not care. I could not help but imagine how, as soon as they got internet access, they would upload those pictures to their social media pages.

That went on until the poor turtle finished laying its egg. It was then, time for her to find the way to the sea.

Turtles are very sensitive to light, and they can only find their way to the sea if the light at the horizon is uninterrupted. However, a stubborn tour guide lit his flashlight on its way. I saw an argument between a ranger and two tour guides, and as it happened, the turtle paused its way in confusion.

I talked to the brave ranger later, and he explained that year by year, the number of turtles coming to Sukamade has been decreasing. He also told me how every night he had to bear with ignorant tour guides and guests. I thought it was miserable. Those visitors should realize that they are visiting a conservation area.

A report in the Meru Betiri bulletin assumed that the lower number of turtle landings was due to the alteration in land use around the National Park. I just believe that is not the only factor. Observing the tourism side, I believe that at some point, there must be restrictions to the number of tourists visiting Sukamade, and stricter tourism rules to protect the turtles' comfort.

The precious eggs. That night, the turtle that we observed left 110 eggs! However, only a very few will survive.

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