Going on holiday to exotic destinations seems the perfect opportunity to get up close with wild animals, but things are not always as they seem.
Rachel Alcock, Wildlife Campaigns Manager at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) gives hints and tips on what to look out for when deciding whether or not to visit a sea turtle conservation facility.
Sea turtles are amazing. Solitary swimmers, they cover thousands of miles, traversing the world’s oceans and diving depths of up to 135 metres. Across the world, facilities from the Cayman Islands to Sri Lanka offer tourists the opportunity to get up close with these endangered animals, often under the guise of promoting conservation aims.
But how do you know if the facility you’re visiting is a good one? Are the animals really being treated OK? How do you make sure you’re not fooled by clever marketing?
There are some simple questions you can research to try to make sure your holiday money isn’t funding cruelty.
What’s the facility’s remit?
Find out what the place you are going to says about itself. What is its purpose? Across the world, different facilities working with sea turtles have different reasons for existence, and getting to the bottom of what the purpose of the place you want to visit is will give you an indication on whether or not it’s good for turtles.
Is it releasing turtles?
If so, try and find out a bit more about their release programme. Are turtles being bred for release? This process is often called headstarting and is quite dated. While those rearing turtles in captivity for eventual release into the wild may have good intentions, many scientists believe that captive bred turtles miss out on a key part of their natural development which equips them for life in the wild. Additionally, turtles are known to return to the beaches they were born to lay their own eggs. This could be dangerously confusing for captive bred animals.
The facility may not be breeding turtles, but instead releasing rehabilitated injured turtles back into the wild.
This is better practice, but keep in mind that meaningful conservation programmes don’t just focus on releasing turtles into the sea, but also on keeping tabs on the animals to gauge survival rate through tagging.
Is it involved in nest protection?
One of the threats faced by sea turtles is poaching. Poachers often steal turtles’ eggs for food or to be sold as food at their most vulnerable time: when they come onto the beach to nest. Beach patrols who protect turtle nests are a good sign, but shouldn’t be intrusive and interrupt this key part of turtles’ breeding.
Can you eat turtles?
This might sound like a no brainer, but a facility which produces sea turtles for human consumption should be avoided. Simply put, there is no humane way to farm sea turtles and any possible conservation benefits are at best, unproven.
What does it offer?
After you’ve checked why the place exists, do some online detective work to see what kind of thing you can do there.
Are there any turtles that live there all the time?
If so, try and find out why. Healthy, wild animals belong in the wild. Ideally, turtles that live in permanent captivity should do so only for their own safety – perhaps because they have injuries that mean they would be more vulnerable to predators in the wild. Check out the conditions they live in; preferably you should find the turtles in large tanks which replicate their natural environment as closely as possible.
Can you touch a turtle?
Look out for evidence of the chance to handle turtles. On the surface, this seemingly harmless activity appears a brilliant photo opportunity, but in reality, turtles find being handled extremely stressful. As well as the obvious hazards as stress and the potential to be dropped or roughly gripped, there are less obvious risks too. Sea turtles have extremely sensitive skin and chemicals in things like sun cream or insect repellent on your hands can hurt them. What’s more, sea turtles can unwittingly harm you too, and spread diseases like salmonella or E.coli to you if you handle them. In order to protect both turtles and people, turtles should be handled as infrequently as possible, by staff wearing gloves.
To the untrained eye, it can be hard to tell if the place you want to visit actually helps or hurts turtles. Sadly, some places are practiced in overselling their achievements.
The facility I previously mentioned, the Cayman Turtle Farm, is one such place. The Farm claims it decreases sea turtle poaching by offering a source of turtle meat. The trouble is; there is no humane way of farming sea turtles; a reality underlined by the fact that the Cayman Turtle Farm is the last facility of its kind left in the world.
The Farm is home to over 9,500 turtles, crowded together in cramped, dirty tanks, getting sick and stressed, turning on each other in uncharacteristic displays of cannibalism. Some are destined for the dinner table, others for clumsy release in the name of ‘conservation’: releases which could in fact potentially threaten wild turtle populations by spreading diseases known to be prevalent in the Cayman Turtle Farm’s tanks.
All face a life of torment, condemned to spending their days being awkwardly handled by tourists who are blissfully unaware of the Farm’s true character.
It’s possible to be easily fooled by places like the Cayman Turtle Farm. Thousands of people are. But it’s also possible to avoid.
By beginning to ask yourself some of the questions I’ve suggested, you should start to discover whether or not the place you want to visit really is turtle friendly. Draw your own conclusions. Don’t be fooled by a shiny website and lofty claims to be contributing to conservation aims.
Love turtles? If you’re interested in finding out more about protecting sea turtles, you can find out more about WSPA’s current campaign to stop sea turtle farming at the Cayman Turtle Farm here: stopseaturtlefarm.org