Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tears for the Turtles

A few years ago, while I was still filming and working in Sri Lanka, I spent a memorable couple of nights in the company of new-borne Olive Ridley turtles, emerging from the sand and scurrying for the safety of the waves.

Since then I have filmed several more turtle species in other parts of Asia - but this first encounter with wild turtles was the most poignant, and the tragedy was that back then, the hunting of turtles for their meat and eggs was rampant, plunging the population of all five species that come to breed on Sri Lanka's shores - into fast decline.

Although hunting turtles still occurs in coastal areas, new legislation and increased awareness of their plight is putting a slight dent on the numbers being slain, the activity continues - illegaly.
Back in 1998, after my wonderous encounter with those newborne turtles, I was compelled to write this in the national press - but be warned, my description of the slaying is quite graphic...

"The greatest of tragedies is the slaughter of the turtles themselves. This activity is illegal, but the extent of turtle killing, like the collection of their eggs, is island- wide and out of sight. A turtle's temperament makes it easy prey to the fisherman's net.

With few natural predators in adulthood, it flees from the approach of a catamaran with a certain reluctance. And once in the boat, its fate is sealed.

Onshore, the animal is flipped on to its back. Powerless and unable to act against its oppressors, the turtle flails pathetically at the air with useless flippers. A man will come close, and using a sharp curving blade, will prise the protective ventral carapace from its body.

As the blood spills, the same knife is used to dissect portions of the living flesh from the dying animal.

And the flesh quivers as it is removed; holding on to the last pulse of life until it finally drains away with the blood and the salt water, into the sand.

A long line of smiling villagers wait to take their share. Through it all, the turtle makes no sound. The flailing limbs will move with less energy, until they are defunct and quite still.

The turtle's eyes will stare, fathomless and glazed.
Mucus, saline tears will weep through the ordeal, and long after its life has been taken. An empty shell will lie abandoned on the shore; and scavengers will take their pick.

Inhuman and yet so typical of us. We find it difficult to accept that we are capable of such barbarism. It is much easier to turn the page and forget the words. A mouth is fed for one day. A life is lost forever."

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