Sunday, May 31, 2009

Just enough space to keep a turtle happy

The site where Kelonia is situated was once a coral farm , where coral was used to make cement between the 1940s and 1960s. In 1977, the site was converted into a turtle farm, with hatchlings collected from the turtle nesting islands of Europa and Tromelin being reared to adulthood, for their meat and shell, the latter of which is still being used in Artisanal Jewellery in Reunion today.

Artisans in Reunion are licensed to make jewellery from Green turtle shell left over from the turtle farm – when the stocks runs out the industry will automatically close down, photo Elke Talma.

In August 2006, the Kelonia Turtle Observatory came into being taking on many of the captive bred turtles already living at the turtle farm. With some minor modifications to the facility the site now hosts over 100,000 visitors a year eager to learn more about turtles and their land based cousins, the tortoise.

The main viewing tank, photo Elke Talma.

The public portion of Kelonia has a main viewing tank where the public can see 4 of the 5 species of turtles known to occur in the Indian Ocean. The tank has a capacity of 500 m3 and currently hosts 5 turtles, which means that each turtle has a personal space of about 100 m3 each.

Visitors to Kelonia not only get to see turtles from the surface but can also get a great underwater view, with Carotte the loggerhead usually hogging the large perspex window.

Carotte hogging the widow, photo Elke Talma.

The touch tank allows visitors to bond with Blanche, and while only 20 m3 in size, it is wide enough to give Blanche room to move, especially when she no longer wants to be petted by curious onlookers.

Blanche has a tank all to her self, photo Elke Talma.

The rest of the Turtle Observatory is off limits to the public although they can get a birds-eye view of the daily activities carried out by the staff. It has 4 sections: the male holding tank, the female holding tank, the care centre and the reproduction tank.
The male holding tank currently has 3 Green turtles and has a capacity of 175 m3 giving each turtle a personal space of just under 60 m3. While the female holding tank currently has 5 Green turtles and has a capacity of 250 m3, giving each turtle a personal space of just under 50 m3.

Holding tanks for male (front) and female (back) turtles, photo Elke Talma.

The reproduction tank currently has 7 Green turtles, all females as the last male got attacked by the ladies and is currently being looked after by Bernadin and his team in the Care Centre. This tank has a capacity of 300 m3 giving each turtle a personal space of just under 43 m3. The tank also features a sand beach with beach-crest vegetation to allow the turtles to nest normally.

Turtles resting in the shallow end of the reproduction tank with the sand beach in the foreground, photo Elke Talma.

In the Care Centre, sick or injured turtles are kept in individual tanks which come in 2 sizes. The small tanks have a capacity of 2 m3 while the larger tanks can hold 10 m3 of sea water. Generally, captive breed animals are kept in the smaller tanks while wild animals that have been injured and brought to the centre are first kept for
a short period in a 2 m3 quarantine tank to get rid of internal and external parasites, before being moved to the larger tanks. The space is limited in these care tanks as the animals need plenty of rest to speed up recovery.

The Care Centre foreground with the reproduction tank in the backround, photo Elke Talma.

There are two additional pens for land tortoise. These animals were donated by people of Reunion who no longer wanted them as pets. There are 10 Madagascar Radiated tortoises and 2 Aldabra Giant tortoises.

Harold, a 53 year old Aldabra Giant tortoise living at Kelonia, photo Elke Talma.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Turtle Chick’s big day …four turtle species in 2 hours!

Thursday was Elke’s day to learn about ‘turtle health’, or more particularly how to help keep the chelonian inhabitants of Kelonia’s facility in good shape…. She had been promised that she could help do the regular clean and polish of the display tank’s turtles and ‘Turtle Chick’ was eager to assist!

‘Turtle Care’ at Kelonia is under the supervision of Bernadin Ouaratta, an extremely experienced Reunionnaise who knows the history of each of the turtles, and their likes and dislikes which is extremely useful! He is assisted by a team of five assistants and today he was assisted by Kevin Certat, acting as turtle wrangler and David Atrigo looking after the land-side activities.

First job of the day was indeed the inhabitants of the big display tank who needed their two monthly service: a good scrub, getting weighed and measured, antiseptic treatment for any scrapes they had picked up and a shot of vitamins to keep them in good shape.

First up were the two hawksbills, Croupette and Myriam who Elke greeted like old friends, being very familiar with their cousins in Seychelles.

Elke assists with giving Myriam the Hawksbill a quick scrub

The next turtle was a female green turtle named Archelon (after the pre-historic giant fossil turtle) and Elke seemed a bit taken aback by the sheer size of 240kgs of marine reptile!

Elke warily gives Arcelon's rear flippers a clean while Bernadin takes control of the front end!

Next was Carotte, the loggerhead turtle who was entirely un-impressed at being manhandled out of her domain by Kevin and who did his best to get back in without any of his health check.

Carotte the Loggerhead was not best pleased at being removed from the pool

Last and definitely not least was Olive, the Olive Ridley; although she is the second smallest, after the small hawksbill, she was purposely left until last……
We were wondering why when Bernadin explained that while Olive would happily let the team do all the cleaning and health checks, once she was back in the pool she would attack anyone who went in afterwards, and experience had taught him that you do not want to be chased by a ticked-off Olive Ridley!

Olive the Ridley with attitude actually behaved perfectly on land.....

With Olive successfully taken care of and back in the pool a tired, grubby, bruised and grazed Turtle Chick was ready for the next bit of the programme which was the ‘Ladies’ pedicure day, the ladies in question being the five female green turtles which are currently taking part in a research programme into turtle respiration and energetics under Dr. Manfred Enstipp.

Today’s task was to simply land the five ladies one by one, give their shells a good clean, treat any minor scrapes with antiseptic and then repaint their identifying research programme numbers onto their shells in the appropriate colour nail varnish… all sounds simple and another ideal opportunity for Turtle Chick to get even more grubby with her favourite animals!

Elke applying the research identification numbers to one of the 'Ladies'....

Well the simple part wasn’t quite as simple as it all sounded as the lightest of the ‘Ladies’ was 130 kg and pulling them out of the pool was a four man effort!

However, Elke was now a professional carapace cleaner and Bernadin was comfortable to let her treat the scrapes that the turtles suffer, largely from the boisterous attentions of the other ‘Ladies’, with a spray on antiseptic which was a bright blue in colour. Bernadin explained that the untreated abrasions being white tended to attract further attention from the other Ladies, so it was best to treat them with something that didn’t look like it might be food! The wisdom of letting Elke loose with a can of spray on blue antiseptic ‘paint’ probably needed to be re-thought, but it was too late as Turtle Chick was now in Medical Graffiti mode and no turtle was safe! Two of the said Ladies now have bright blue nether regions which I’m sure will cause a stir at the local night-spot!

Authorised 'Medical Graffitti'.... is it wise to give Elke a can of spray paint?

Final treat for the morning was assisting Manfred prepare one of the Ladies, Elizabeth, for a detachable tag mount which involved sanding a small patch of shell to allow a Velcro patch to be glued into place. This was very similar to the satellite tag mounting process we are familiar with and so Elke was given the job of sanding the shell area. We’re not sure who gave Elke the power-tool with a sanding head, but they must have missed the Medical Grafitti episode a few minutes earlier! Luckily Manfred was there to make sure that all was well and no turtles were harmed in the making of this blog!

It is definitely not wise to give Turtle Chick power tools, David Atrigo looks more than a little worried!

Four species of turtles in two hours was a new record for Elke, as were probably the number of scrapes and bruises she collected in the process! We just hope that Seychelles’ hawksbills are sensible enough to come ashore clean and shiny this season or they may be in for a surprise!

Blanche, a cuddly albino Green turtle

Blanche, one of the few living adult albino Green turtles in the world, Elke Talma.

Blanche is a 20 year old Green turtle living at Kelonia, who also happens to be one of a few surviving albino turtles in the world. Cases of albinism in reptiles are very rare with an occurrence rate of about 1 in 100,000. The absence of pigmentation makes the albino vulnerable to predators as it can no longer camouflage itself in the wild.

She is considered the flagship individuals at Kelonia and features on many of their promotional materials. She is also a great hit with the public as she loves to be caressed and tickled by anyone who comes to visit the Marine Observatory. Visitors can also feed her with leaves from the “Veloutier Blanc” or “Bois Tabac” as it is known in Seychelles (Tournefortia argentea).

Blanche and Elke bonding, photo David Rowat.

Kelonia provides a safe haven for Blanche, not only from predators but also other turtles. In the wild, she would be picked on by other turtles who seem to have a thing for biting at white objects or marks. This is clearly seen with some of the turtles in Kelonia who share holding tanks. They are continually nipping at each others healing wounds from minor conflicts between individuals. In an attempt to speed up recovery, the staff at Kelonia have switched to a coloured antiseptic spray to mask the injury allowing it to heal.

Turtle with blue bum courtesy of Elke, photo Elke Talma.... More on this in the next blog!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Welcome to Kelonia

Elke and David are currently on Reunion Island visiting with regional partners at the Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory and Ifremer, the French oceanographic research institute whose name translates literally as the Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea.

The Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory, photo Elke Talma.

David is scheduled to give a presentation shortly on the photo-ID techniques used on whale sharks together with Violaine Dulau of Globice who uses photo-ID on whales and dolphins and Claire Jean of Kelonia, who is working on a new method that may prove promising to help in the identification of individual turtles from photographs.

The week long trip was sponsored by the French Government in collaboration with Kelonia under a programme of regional collaboration.

The first working day in Reunion consisted of meeting the team at the turtle Observatory and learning about the various turtle projects that are being implemented by Kelonia. A short visit to the DNA Laboratory at Ifremer, proved interesting for David who in his youth (a long, long time ago) was a lab tech in a genetics labs. Elke managed to get her hands on some sample pots and will be collecting tissue samples during the next nesting season.

David and Stephane Ciccione, Director of Kelonia touring the facility, photo Elke Talma.

On day two, David sat down with Claire to translate his power point presentation into French while Elke, armed with her camera, joined Emily Richard, the Assistant Public Relations Officer at Kelonia on a guided tour of the aquarium with a young group of enthusiastic turtle conservationists.

School kids get up close and personal with a 240kg Green Turtle, photo Elke Talma.

Kelonia host over 100,000 visitors a year and much of the public awareness is done through activities with schools. Although Seychelles does not have an aquarium there is still much we can learn from our new partners in Reunion in terms of public awareness aimed at young children.

A youngster gets an underwater view of a loggerhead turtle, photo Elke Talma.

The day ended with Claire giving Elke a brief description of the turtle photo-ID protocols in preparation for Wednesday’s image processing marathon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

New feature on the blog

The MCSS turtle blog has a new feature - the cluster map in the column on the right allows you to see how many people from various countries around the world are interested in our turtle programme.

We apparently are a hit with the Americans with over 57 visits recorded.

International team rescues critically endangered terrapin

Every now and again, the MCSS Research Officer gets called out to deal with a turtle rescue … in this case, a terrapin!

“J.Lo”, the first known record of a Yellow-Bellied Mud Turtle in the Plantation Wetland, photo Elke Talma.

“J.Lo” was found by Jan Van Wijk, a South African, wandering on the road near Plantation Club along the West coast of Mahe. He phoned Leo Hoevers, a Dutchman, who runs a dive centre at Anse La Mouche. Leo called Glynis Sanders, a Scot who is married to David, a Welshman who is the Chairman of MCSS. Glynis called Elke, a Seychellois who then rushed over to investigate.

Not being a terrapin expert, Elke took the animal back to the MCSS office and spent some time on the internet trying to ID the Species. “J.Lo”, named after her rescuers (J for Jan and Lo for Leo), is a Seychelles Yellow-Bellied Mud Turtle (
Pelusios castanoides intergularis) a sub species of P. castanoides which is found on mainland Africa ranging from Kenya to the north eastern Republic South Africa. The species which is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN 2008 Red List, is restricted to 6 islands of the Seychelles group, with 4 breeding populations remaining.

In 2005, it was estimated that there were only 120 adults in the wild and legal protection of wetland habitats is urgently required as populations continue to decline due to ongoing marsh drainage and river canalization.
ID chart for Seychelles endemic terrapins, Mortimer and Bour (2002)

After confirming the species ID with terrapin expert, Justin Gerlach from the Nature Protection Trust, Seychelles, the next step was to decided what to do with “J.Lo”. Should she be released back in the Plantation Club wetland, where a tourism development is scheduled to begin shortly or should she be relocated to the Intendance wetland which is being managed and protected by Banyan Tree Resort, Seychelles?

Banyan Tree Wetland, a safe haven for terrapins, photo Elke Talma.

With an estimated population of only 120 animals, the choice was easy. Staff at Banyan Tree who are familiar with terrapin husbandry, are working on a quarantine area for “J.Lo” but in the mean time she is chilling in Elke’s bathtub and developing a fetish for broccoli and banana’s, having turned her nose up at the snails Elke found in her garden.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Have you the heart to be a voluntary conservation officer?

Some people who express a wish to be a volunteer turtle conservation officer have quite a romantic conception of what it entails. It sounds quite inviting, walking a tropical beach in search of nesting turtles and then sitting down and recording the data gathered.

It sounds a doddle!

Don’t be mislead. It is hard work walking a beach in the tropical, humid heat of Seychelles… and often a lonely task. Its certainly not for the fainthearted.

So why do we do it?

On the upside, you get to be very fit walking for miles on sand. On the downside, you get hot and bothered as you search the vegetation on the beach crest looking for turtle tracks (watch out for courting couples!).

By our efforts, however, we hope to ensure that our children and our children's children will in the future be able to see turtles on these beaches here in the Seychelles.

Marcel educating a local boy about the merits of turtle conservation, photo Elke Talma.

But take heed, if you think you have the heart for turtle conservation you may find it not only a rewarding voluntary pastime, but more a time consuming passion, a way of life...

. …. News from Patricia

Friday, May 8, 2009

Clean reefs = happy turtles

To commemorate Earth Day 2009, Underwater Centre/Dive Seychelles and MCSS organised clean-up dives in the North of Mahe. Volunteers from a number of local organisations were invited; these included staff from the dive centre, MCSS, Global Vision International , Seychelles Centre for Marine Research and Technology , Seychelles Fishing Authority and Seychelles Island Foundation.

The clean-up team from the morning dive, photo Glynis Saunders.
The clean-up team from the afternoon dive, photo Glynis Saunders.

During the morning dive, Tony Marie-Jeanne, dive instructor from the Underwater Centre/Dive Seychelles cum paparazzi for the day, photographed a Hawksbill turtle while following the clean-up team.
Curious Hawksbill turtle watching the clean-up team from a safe distance, photo Tony Marie-Jeanne.

Keeping our reefs clean and healthy is an important part of turtle conservation. Removing rubbish such as ropes and plastic bags ensures that turtles do not get tangled up or ingest what, to them looks like a tasty jelly-fish.

Turtle eating plastic bag, photo web - unattributed.

In addition to collecting rubbish from the sea floor, the clean up team also collected Crown of Thorns starfish (Acanthaster plancii). These starfish, can cause havoc if allowed to reach plague proportions, destroying large stretches of reef as they feed on coral polyps.

Crown of Thorns starfish, photo Tony Marie-Jeanne.

With reefs impacted, the Hawksbill turtle’s foraging habitats are affected making it harder for them to find their preferred food items.

Hawksbill turtle feeding on sponges, photo Pierre Andre Adam.

As these reefs get broken down by wave action, beaches are eroded and nesting sites may be lost or become badly degraded, thus affecting turtle nesting success.

Nesting beach severely eroded after a storm, destroying a number of turtle nests, photo Elke Talma

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Welcome to paradise, Banyan Tree style

Hawksbills hatchling, photo Banyan Tree.
The last nest on Intendance beach has hatched and luckily for a group of new arrivals at Banyan Tree Resort, Seychelles, Adam spotted them before they all got away.

Adam and his trusty “hatchling box” waiting for clients to arrive for the release, photo Banyan Tree.

Holding them “hostage”, Adam waited while staff at reception informed clients from the Resort of the happy event and interrupted check-in for the new arrivals, allowing them to experience a once in life time encounter with baby turtles.
A group of about 15 newly arrived tourists gathered to watch the last of the 2008-09 hatchlings leaving Intendance beach, photo Banyan Tree.

Hatchling being assisted out of a footprint, a major obstacle for a tiny reptile trying to make it to the sea, photo Banyan Tree.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What happened to Stubs, the Olive Ridley turtle?

On the 4th of May 2007, exactly 2 years ago today, MCSS Research Officer, Elke Talma, was called out to investigate a report of an injured turtle at Mare Anglais, North Mahe. The animal, which was still alive but had lost its front right flipper, was identified by International experts, Dr. Michael Coyne and Dr Brendan Godley from, as a juvenile Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), a species which breeds in Western Mozambique and India. This was the first ever, and only, recorded sighting of a live Olive Ridley turtle in Seychelles wasters, previously only one dead Olive Ridley carcass had been found here.

Elke recording details of the then “unidentified” species of turtle found washed ashore at Mare Anglais, photo Niamh Brosnan.

According to the FAO Marine Turtle Catalogue, this pan-tropical species lives mainly in the northern hemisphere. They are usually seen in large flotillas travelling along the continental shelves between breeding and feeding grounds in the Eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean but despite its wide range of distribution, this species is nearly unknown around oceanic islands like Seychelles.

“Stubs”, as the turtle was been nicknamed, had been tangled in marine debris/ropes and probably had trouble keeping on course. Unable to swim properly, it drifted until eventually being washed ashore on a small beach at Mare Anglais on the North coast of Mahe.

“Stubs”, the first live Olive Ridley turtle ever reported in Seychelles waters, photo Niamh Brosnan.

After checking that the young turtle was otherwise healthy and taking lots of pictures to document this unusual find, the energetic “Stubs” was finally sent on his/her way to join the great oceanic migration of the Olive Ridley’s.

Marine debris – why is it a threat to turtles?

Marine debris is typically defined as any man-made object discarded, disposed of, or abandoned that enters the coastal or marine environment. It may enter directly from a ship, or indirectly when washed out to sea via rivers, streams and storm drains. Marine debris, such as tar balls, plastic bags, balloons, and ghost fishing gear etc., are a major problem for marine turtles that spend all or a significant portions of their life cycle in the open ocean. These turtles, often ingest or become entangled in marine debris as they feed along oceanographic fronts, where debris and their natural food items converge.

Turtle tangled in discarded fishing net, photo Michel Gunther.

There are many programmes around the world that are looking at preventing and reducing the occurrence of marine debris. With a little help from you maybe “Stubs” and his relatives will be able to continue to safely swim through our oceans for generations to come.

Blood on the Rocks by Patricia.

The hawksbill nesting season is now drawing to a close and Marcel and I are counting the days to the hatching dates of the last few nests. One nest in particular has been getting a lot of our attention.

About 2 months ago, during a routine patrol we found the fresh remains of a young adult female hawksbill turtle on one of our small beaches. Poachers had killed her before she had even laid her eggs. These, they had tossed carelessly into the rocks, many of them still in their long tube like egg sacs.

Carcass of the poached Hawksbill turtle, photo Marcel Mathiot.

It is sad that this young turtle 25 to 30 years old, perhaps in her first breeding season had travelled hundreds of miles to the beach where, as a hatchling her life had begun, only now to 'rendez vous’ with death. Our hearts heavy, we phoned Elke with the bad news. She advised us to collect and relocate any eggs we could find.

A string of eggs still encased in the long tube like egg sacs, photo Patricia Mathiot.

So Marcel collected up the undamaged eggs and buried them in a ‘Marcel made’ nest above the high water mark on the beach at the front of our bungalow. This small act helped immensely to lift the sadness we felt at the killing of one of our turtles, and gave us hope that at least some of the eggs would hatch.

As time ran out and no hatchlings emerged we had to investigate the nest. Unfortunately we had hoped in vain, it was not to be. No happy ending this time, as not one egg hatched.

The batch of relocated eggs never developed, photo Marcel Mathiot.

When I review the photographs taken that day on that small beach, I feel so sad and I wonder if all this grief is worth it. But of course it is!

Each turtle season, we learn more about these strange beasts and we see how the people around us are no longer wielding a ‘grand cuto’ to kill them, but are watching out for the turtles, protecting them as they lay their eggs and then seeing them safely back to the sea. The news that a turtle is nesting is passed on to us with such excitement and the pleasure received by all who watch over one of these strange inoffensive beasts is difficult to describe.

…. News from Patricia