Volunteers strive to protect Cyprus turtles

NICOSIA – A spot of sand on Alagadi beach in northern Cyprus quivers slightly, revealing first a small green head and then the tiny flippers of a baby sea turtle making its first entrance into a golden, sun-tanned world. Late summer on the northern coasts of Cyprus is the time when turtle eggs, laid by hundreds of sea turtles between late May and early August, hatch, and for four months each year a host of foreign and local volunteers come to the aid of their shell-laden friends and watch over their fragile habitat. «Less than one hatchling in a thousand will survive until adulthood,» said marine life specialist Wayne Fuller, who leads the Marine Turtle Conservation Project (MTCP), run since 1992 by the University of Wales at Swansea. Dozens of MTCP volunteers, British and locals, daily monitor some 20 beaches in the north and west of the breakaway Turkish state in northern Cyprus, Fuller said. During the nesting period, which is always at night or early evening, they make sure conditions are ideal for the turtles: Any unnatural source of light, noise, or other disturbances will turn them back to the sea. Once the eggs are laid and the turtles depart, the volunteers carefully place wire cages around the nests to keep away roaming dogs, and monitor to keep away poachers. Sometimes, if the eggs are placed too close to the waterfront and risk being damaged by water, the teams will dig them up and move them to higher ground. Nesting females typically lay their eggs in holes up to 1 meter (3 feet) deep and then cover them with sand. Once they hatch several weeks later, revealing scores of palm-size baby turtles, the teams take measurements and check the hatchlings are healthy before setting them down on the sand to make their way to the water. The delicate job sometimes requires that an immature hatchling be held back for two to three days in the care of the experts until they deem that it is ready to go it alone in the water. The two types of sea turtles that reproduce on Cyprus, the loggerhead and the green turtle, can as adults reach the sizes of 1 meter (3 feet) and 1.50 meters (4.5 feet) respectively. They reach sexual maturity at a startling 15 years of age, and can live to between 60 and 100 years. But because of pollution, damage to their habitats around the world from development projects, poaching and mass fishing, they are both listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The volunteer teams, by ensuring as many hatchlings survive as possible, also increase the chances that more of the reptiles will reach sexual maturity in 15 years and keep the reproductive cycle going. Alagadi, a few kilometers east of Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish), is one of 85 beaches identified as nesting areas in northern Cyprus. The entire Karpas panhandle-shaped peninsula further east is classed as a «special protected area» by Turkish-Cypriot authorities. In Karpas, authorities run their own turtle protection program covering 18 beaches but have recently run into financial problems, said Hasibe Kusetogullari, an official at the tourism and environment ministry. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which largely funded the program from 1996 to 2002, cut its funding this year, added Kusetogullari, the overseer of the project run this year by Turkish, German and local volunteers. Many residents of Karpas, a wild and largely untouched part of the island, would prefer to see a rise in the number of tourists visiting their coasts in place of the turtles. «When electricity comes, they will start building big five-star hotels,» said Burhan Calin, who runs a small restaurant and bungalow-style huts at Golden Beach and hosts the volunteers each year. But Calin and other participants in the turtle protection projects hope that authorities, whether there is a solution to the division of the island or not, will keep Karpas a protected zone. Cyprus, after Greece and Turkey, is the third most important reproduction spot in the Mediterranean for sea turtles. In the southern Greek side of the island, the majority of the turtle beaches are located in the western Akamas reserve.

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