January 9, 2005
Tsunami Could Make Turtle Species Extinct
PHUKET, Thailand (AP) -- Endangered sea turtles were also casualties of the tsunami, with the monster waves possibly hastening their extinction, a marine expert said Saturday.
At least 24 turtles swept up by the waves have been found on the shores of Phuket island, some dead, others with cuts, scrapes and broken shells.But the titanic wave also swept away about two dozen endangered olive ridley turtles that were part of a breeding program which had been increasing their numbers.
"In the worse-case scenario, the effect of the tsunami could make some species of sea turtles extinct," said Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong, a marine biologist at Phuket Marine Biological Center, said.
When the wall of water swept ashore, the immediate focus was on saving human lives, and marine center workers pitched in.
Now they are finding the damage to the sea turtle was severe, perhaps irreparable. Since sea turtles move slowly, breathe through their lungs and need to surface regularly for oxygen, they were particularly susceptible to the tsunami.
Some 20 out of 30 breeding olive ridley turtles that were raised in a cement pool near the sea were swept away. Their fate is unknown. It is unclear if they can survive in the sea.
The green, hawksbill, olive ridley and leatherback turtles, which are found in tropical waters, live 18 feet from shore, making them vulnerable to waves that dumped dolphins and other sea creatures more than a half-mile inland.
The olive ridley and leatherback are listed as threatened or endangered.
In the tsunami-affected region, the olive ridley breed only on the Andaman Sea coast and nearly became extinct in Thailand, because their eggs were smuggled for food. Their numbers fell from 5,000 nests 50 years ago to fewer than 200 today.
The breeding program had allowed the olive ridley with its broad heart-shaped shell to start a comeback, but it has now been dealt a serious blow.
"The environment has changed, with debris and garbage strewn on the seashore and sediment in the sea," Kongkiat said. "These are not good conditions for turtles to lay eggs."
The olive ridley is found in the tropical waters of the northern Indian Ocean, the eastern Pacific and in the eastern Atlantic along the coast of Africa. In the western Atlantic, most nesting occurs along a short stretch of beach on Surinam.
Trade in sea turtles is banned under a global agreement.