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Three-year project hopes to bring turtles back to central Vietnam islands

By Dac Thanh   July 18, 2019 | 03:15 am PT
Three-year project hopes to bring turtles back to central Vietnam islands
Hatched olive ridley sea turtles on the Cham Islands in the central province of Quang Nam return to the ocean. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.
Vo Nghiem, 70, of Quang Nam remembers how sea turtles used to come to the central province's Cham Islands in the 1980s to lay eggs.

The turtles would swim to the islands between the fourth and seventh lunar months and lay their eggs in the sand before returning to the sea. The islands are home to four species of turtles: green sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, and olive ridley sea turtle.

"But for 20 years locals did not see that happen," Nghiem says.

In the 2000s the Cham Islands became a popular tourist destination with thousands of people visiting daily. The tourism boom meant buildings and other structures were built near beaches for travelers, and there was a constant commotion, which kept the turtles away.

"Turtles are afraid of light and loud noise, so they often choose unoccupied beaches to lay eggs," Nghiem says.

"I remember how they would always survey their surroundings, waiting for the high tide, before coming ashore late at night."

New fishing contraptions developed in recent years also trapped and killed many of them, he says.

"We requested local authorities many times to find a way to restore the environment as it once was, so the turtles could return and reproduce."

The authorities, to their credit, listened. In 2015 the Cham Islands management board called a meeting of stakeholders and asked whether the turtles’ reproductive habitat should be restored. 97 percent said yes.

A plan was hatched to bring the turtles back to the islands. But it was not going to be easy.

600-mile journey

In 2016 the "Restoration and Protection of Marine Turtles in Cham Islands" project was begun by Nguyen Van Vu, the board’s head of research and international cooperation. It consisted of two parts: protecting the ecosystem and its constituents like coral reefs and seagrass, and bringing turtle eggs from Con Dao Island in the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau, over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) to the south.

Con Dao, also a popular tourist destination, is also a place where hundreds of turtles come to lay eggs, and around 50,000 hatchlings are born every year on average, Vu said. Conservation efforts on Con Dao since 1995 have helped over 300,000 baby turtles return to the sea and tagged over 1,000 adult turtles, he said.

"Turtles can remember where they were born and return there to lay eggs though many years might have passed. We took advantage of this behavior to hatch new turtles on Cham Islands with the hope they would return to the islands in the next 20 years to reproduce."

Bringing the eggs was, however, a challenge.

Turtle eggs brought from Con Dao Island of the southern Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province to Cham Islands in the central province of Quang Nam to hatch. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

Turtle eggs brought from Con Dao Island of the southern Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province to Cham Islands in the central province of Quang Nam to hatch. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

It took Vu and his associates four months to complete the documents and receive approval for the plan from provincial authorities and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

"[Delivering turtle eggs from Con Dao to Cham] was unprecedented in Vietnam, so there were disagreements between government agencies, which posed a challenge to the plan," Vu said.

The plan was eventually approved, with 2,000 eggs to be delivered from Con Dao to Cham over three years: 1,000 in 2017, 500 last year and the rest this year.

In July 2017 around 500 eggs were placed inside styrofoam boxes with sand to keep them in place. Half of them were delivered by car and the rest by aircraft. The former were fine, but the air transport posed a problem: security clearance procedures could damage the eggs. The team had to persuade airport security to clear the consignment manually.

Upon arrival on Cham Islands, the eggs were immediately taken to Bac Beach and buried under the sand. After 18 days the first baby turtles crawled out of the sand and into the sea to the joy of hundreds of the team members, officials and locals.

"The first time the hatching rate was 90 percent, which surprised me, since we only expected a rate of 14 percent," Vu said.

"The project’s initial success has motivated us to do more egg-delivery trips in future."

Around 1,500 baby turtles have hatched on Cham Islands and returned to the ocean in the last couple of years thanks to the project.

Five turtle species are listed in Vietnam’s Red Book of endangered species, the green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, and olive ridley.

They are threatened by pollution and loss of nesting areas due to coastal development, among other factors.

They are protected, and hunting or trading any of them is a crime.

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