Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy

Thame Hla Island: a Vanishing Haven for Sea Turtles

Htun Htun The Irrawaddy

THAME HLA ISLAND, Andaman Sea—Out in the Andaman Sea at the southernmost tip of Myanmar’s Ayeyawaddy Delta lies Thame Hla Island. At first glance, the one-square-mile area look like any another fishing point with trawlers busy with their catch day in, day out. But when night falls, and the steady march of green sea turtles out of the sea and onto the shore begins, Thame Hla is no longer a fishermen’s haven. Instead, it becomes a hatching ground for the world largest sea turtles.

Of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, five can be found in Myanmar’s coastal waters. Two of the five, the leatherback and the loggerhead, are on the verge of extinction, according to sea turtle conservationists, but the total population of all five species has dropped by 70 percent in the past two decades as excessive fishing and environmental degradation have destroyed their habitats and food chains. (The flatback turtle and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle are the varieties not found in Myanmar.)

Normally, sea turtles visit certain shores at specific times for hatching, but green turtles come to Thame Hal Island the whole year round to lay their eggs.

“Probably that’s because of the easy access to food and the safe habitat here,” said U Hpone Maw, the head of the government-run hatchery on the island.

He explained that fishing contributes a lot to the extinction of sea turtles, as the fishing season in Myanmar, coming at the end of the monsoon, coincides with the turtles’ mating season. Adding to the problem, the fishing areas are in the same locations as the turtles’ mating areas.

“Every time you lift the net, there are always two to four adult turtles in it,” he said. “Let’s say there are 4,000 fishing boats, nearly 16,000 turtles are killed per day as a result. This has happened for a decade. It’s no wonder they are on the verge of extinction.”

With its vast, sandy shore, the whole of Thame Hla Island used to be a safe haven for the green sea turtle. But with a booming fishing industry and man-made environmental degradation like sand-mining, only a tiny fraction of the island is available to the reptiles for hatching these days.

“It would be better if we had conservation centers along the coastline,” U Hpone maw said.

Despite its long coastline, Myanmar only has government-run hatcheries in three locations, including Thame Hla.

“The one in Longlone in Taninthari Region is merely a hut with one staffer,” the hatchery chief said.