A very special conservation project….
The island of Cyprus has a wealth of wildlife including two species of marine turtle. Turtles have survived for more than one hundred and fifty million years, but in the last 100 years, the world’s turtle population has declined dramatically and their future lies in the balance. Many of the turtles’ natural nesting habitats are being destroyed by property development and thousands of eggs and young hatchlings are lost each year to an increasing number of predators. At sea, their mortality rate is high as fishermen inadvertently catch them in their nets.
The number of turtles that breed on the beaches of Cyprus remains steady – but only just – and this is thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team of people who work tirelessly to conserve them at the Seasonal Turtle Station at Lara in the Akamas.
If you are exploring the wilderness of the Akamas peninsula (northwest of Paphos) with a rented 4X4 vehicle or have booked a seat on a jeep safari visiting the area, it is possible to climb down the wooden steps on the side of the sand dunes to visit the Turtle Station. There are information boards and photographs to see as well as plenty of turtle nests protected by cages. Visitors are not allowed on the beach till one hour after sunrise and are requested to leave the beach, one hour prior to sunset as noise and lights can easily disorientate the turtles causing them to return to the sea where they will release their precious clutches of eggs rather than lay them in the sand.
Turtle conservation in Cyprus began in 1971 when they became protected by the Cyprus government and in 1976 an initiative by the Fisheries Department was begun and two years later, in 1978, the seasonal Turtle Station at Lara was established. This was the first conservation project of its kind in the Mediterranean with the aim of protecting the two species of marine turtle who lay their precious eggs on the beaches of Cyprus – the Green (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) – in an effort to reverse the decline in their numbers. The team was led by Andreas Demetropoulos, who for many years was the Director of the Department of Fisheries and Myroula, his wife, who until her retirement, was a senior marine biologist in the department.
It is vital that the eggs are protected from predation because from every 1,000 eggs, one turtle will survive until adulthood (25-30 years). Nest protection reduces predation dramatically and the survival rate is now higher. It is estimated that there are now less than 500 green turtles nesting every year in the Mediterranean and about ten times as many Loggerheads.
The Lara- Toxeftra area is one of the last remaining breeding sites in the whole of the Mediterranean for the large Green turtle. This species needs quiet, sandy beaches to lay her eggs. She is the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles and will grow up to over one metre long and weigh 100-150 kg. The Green is essentially vegetarian with a diet of sea grasses and algae and gets its name from the creamy green colour of its body fat. It has a smooth brownish black carapace and a pretty rounded head, with creamy folds of skin under the chin and white to cream-coloured belly.
The Loggerhead turtle is a slightly smaller turtle, and gets its name from the shape of its relatively large head, which has a powerful jaw that is used to break crustacea and sea urchins. The Loggerhead has a chestnut brown coloured carapace and has a yellowish belly. Both turtles are extensive travellers and may migrate hundreds of miles from their feeding grounds to return to the beach where they were born for the breeding season, using geomagnetic forces for navigation.
The mature female breeds every two – four years. She mates just once in the springtime and then comes ashore to lay her eggs three-five times between late May and mid-August. Once she has found a place to nest, she digs first with her front flippers and then, with the her rear flippers to create a cylindrical chamber 40-80cm deep, in which she lays a clutch of about 100 eggs. She buries them with sand using her powerful front flippers before returning to the sea. The eggs are naturally incubated in the sand over a period of about seven weeks. The young hatchlings (measuring 40-50 mm) dig their way out of the nest at night and head unerringly to the sea. All nests on all beaches (except on one or two on the busiest ones) are caged in situ with specially designed aluminium cages that prevent foxes and other predators from digging up the nests. On average, 450 nests are protected every year. Usually about 20, that have been laid on popular tourist beaches are transferred to the Lara hatchery, where they are reburied in the sand to the same depth, as this determines sand temperature and the temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings. On the beaches in the Lara – Toxeftra Reserve area, and in Chrysochou Bay all turtle nests are protected in situ and carefully monitored with as much information as possible being recorded.
Throughout the breeding season, training courses are held for UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) sponsored scientists from different Mediterranean countries. They are scientists, protected area managers and qualified wardens working in the administrations of their countries.
The number of baby hatchlings released to the sea each year fluctuates, but averages about 30.000 hatchings but for the small bay turtles their battle against the odds has only just begun and only one in 100 survives to maturity and can return to the beach where she was born to lay her own first clutch of eggs….
- The seasonal turtle hatchery is in place between June and late September and is in a very isolated spot so do check that you have adequate food and water with you.
- Please note that the use of sun umbrellas on the beach is prohibited