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Kenya: Climate change and water sports join growing list of sea turtle threats

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Kenya

Kenyan waters are host to the green, loggerhead, hawksbill, leatherback and olive ridley turtles. The most frequently encountered off Tiwi and Diani beaches south of Mombasa are the hawksbill turtle and green turtles.

Sometimes people here are lucky enough to get a rare sighting of loggerheads or leatherbacks.

But these sea turtles face a multitude of obstacles to their survival.

They are prey for commercial companies, or locals who harvest them for their meat, shells and oil. Other times they're caught accidentally by fishermen and their habitats are dwindling.

Two months after the turtles lay their eggs, the babies hatch. A few days after hatching, conservationists from Tiwi Turtle Police perform an excavation of the nest to find out how many babies hatched, how many did not and why. 

Occasionally, a few baby turtles are left inside the nest because of the weight of the eggs, the egg shells or the composition of the sand.

Conservationists help them out of the nest so they can crawl safely into the sea, so increasing their chances of survival. Biologist Leah Mainye works for the Olive Ridley Project, an English charitable organization that studies the impact of fisheries on sea turtle populations in the Indian Ocean.

"Sea turtles are a key species in the reef. So what happens for the hawksbills is that they help to clean up the corals and if there is nothing cleaning up the corals then definitely the corals are going to die. And also for the green turtles which feed on the sea grass, if they are dead then we don't have any species that is going to clean the sea grass area and that is why we are encouraging more people to go into conservation of sea turtles, so that we can protect our ocean," explains Mainye.

Sea turtles in Kenya are classified as protected by legislation that prohibits any form of direct exploitation of the animal or its products.

Illegal harvesting is declining, but conservationists say their preservation is still an uphill task.

Biologist Joanna Hancock says: "Globally sea turtles are facing huge challenges regarding climate change. We are looking at a lot of beaches where we are looking at the feminization of the hatchlings. So what we are looking at is that with the rising temperatures of the air and the sand we are looking at more and more hatchlings that are females. The beaches are producing more females than males. So that is skewing the sex ratios which is not good."

Normally, a turtle will take 48 days to hatch.

According to Hancock, the sex of sea turtles is determined by the predominant incubation temperature that affects the secretion of specific hormones that will lead to the affirmation of the sex gonads 16 days to hatching.

She explains: "An excess of females is never good because the males are important for reproduction, but also the males are the drivers of genetic diversity of a population. So we want species that are resilient to change and to threats."

According to Dempsey Mai, a biological scientist and project manager at Diani Turtle Watch, sea sports are emerging as a new threat to the turtles. He says: "Some of the sea turtles that we have found dead have been diagnosed with concussions from boat strikes."

Diani Turtle Watch is trying to educate the fishermen on the importance of conserving the animals lest they go extinct.

In April 2022 alone, Diani Turtle Watch recorded four cases of sea turtle deaths, all claimed to be attributed to vessel strikes.

They were found with fatal injuries where their front flippers had been severed from their bodies, sometimes it's claimed that fishermen have injured the turtles while trying to free them.

Now Diani Turtle Watch is providing assistance to the fishermen, after contact they go out to the boats and free the turtles safely.

The fishermen who do this are compensated for their compliance. The pandemic has also affected the conservation of turtles because lockdowns prevented the meeting of groups set up to monitor them and help with hatchlings.

Conservation groups claim there has also been increase in trawling and cases of sea turtles being caught in fishing nets. According to Mai, sea turtle deaths grew during that period.

Now the Tiwi Turtle Police, Kenya Wildlife Service and community monitors are back raising consciousness about the importance of sea turtle conservation and surveillance and they claim the number of deaths is reducing.

Conservationists here say Tiwi and Diani have some of the most important stretches of nesting beaches in Kenya.

Tour guides like Yakini Ali understand their importance to everyone. He says: "Many tourists love to watch animals that are alive and that is a boost for our business. However if we lose species such as the turtles, then our businesses decline."

Turtles can came back to nest on the same beach where they hatched after 50 years, so helping

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