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  Bangkok Post 22 Sep 07
Saving Turtles: 'Doing the turtle walk' now a thing of the past
Stories by Achadtaya Chuenniran

Efforts of local people to conserve sea turtles in the resort province, once a major habitat for the marine creatures, have met with little sucess.

The boom in tourism and the construction industry are the two main contributing factors to the alarming decline in the turtle population on the island.

Also gone with the turtles is the unique festival in Phuket called the Turtle Walk festival, which used to be held between late October and early November to highlight the turtle egg-laying season.

During the festival, locals would stroll along the beaches to observe the turtles laying eggs. Now few people can do the turtle walk along the beach any more as there is nothing to see.

Today sea turtles can be seen only in state agencies' turtle breeding wells. The wells are part of a state attempt to save four kinds of local species of sea turtles from extinction.

The breeding wells operate under the supervision of the Phuket Marine Biological Centre. Each year, it releases some 500 baby turtles into the Andaman Sea.

Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong, a senior researcher at the centre, said for many centuries Phuket beaches had been home to four species of sea turtles _ green turtles (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill sea turtles (Erethmochelys imbricata), olive ridley's turtles ( Lepidochelys olivacea), and the leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coreacea).

Recently, marine scientists also rediscovered the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) on one of the island's beaches after its disappearance from the island over three decades ago.

According to Mr Kongkiat, sea turtles only lay eggs when they are over 10 years old. Normally, each turtle chooses a quiet spot on the beach, where it digs a large hole and lays around 70-150 eggs. They then cover the hole and return to the sea. In the past, there were at least 10 known egg-laying sites of sea turtles along the Andaman coast.

Today, only one such site remains on Hooyong island in Phangnga province.

Apart from limited egg-laying sites, other threats that have reduced the size of the sea turtle population in the Andaman Sea include fishing nets.

Each year many rare species of turtles are injured, maimed or killed by fishing boat propellers, or trapped in fishing nets both intentionally and unintentionally.

Worse still, local fishing communities have over the years made turtle meat part of their diet. Many villagers believe the turtle shells have supernatural power which can heal illnesses. It is also believed that people who wear accessories made from turtle shells are shielded from bad luck.

Jan Pramongkit, 39, a villager from the Thai Mai community in Ban Laem Tukkae of Phuket's Muang district, said people in her community only eat turtle meat which comes from dead turtles which are accidentally trapped in fishing nets.

''We just don't want to throw those dead turtles away, so we cook their meat for our meals. The meat tastes like beef or pork. It's not much different,'' said Ms Jan.

Another Thai Mai villager, Khian Pramongkit, 28, said all Thai Mai families have accessories made of turtle shells, including bracelets, out of belief that they help avert bad luck and illness. Some families even burn turtle shells in front of their houses when a family member is taken ill to keep bad omen at bay, said Ms Khian.

Another major threat to sea turtles is the change in the marine ecological system.

The government and local villagers are now well aware of the need to save sea turtles along the Andaman coastline. Relevant agencies have come up with a sea turtle conservation plan, which includes turtle breeding and releasing turtles to the sea.

Agencies taking part in the sea turtle conservation plan will soon sign a collaboration deal. Key players in the collaboration are the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the navy and some non-governmental organisations.

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