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Endangered Turtles Make Hong Kong Home

Endangered green sea turtles fight against the odds to survive in Hong Kong waters, where the government is working to rebuild turtle populations.

Hong Kong, a bustling capital of commerce, may seem an unlikely place to find endangered species. But the green sea turtle continues to make the territory's waters its home.

Green sea turtles are rare find

Gina Miller recently was canoeing near Lamma Island, one of more than 200 islands that comprise Hong Kong, when she had a glimpse of a member of a species struggling to survive worldwide.

"And I looked again and realized I was looking at a green turtle," said Miller. "No one sees green turtles any more. And so pretty much as quickly as I recognized it, it dove below the surface and disappeared."

The green sea turtle, named for its greenish colored fat, was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of threatened species in 2004. They are global citizens, known to nest in over 80 countries and to swim in the waters of 140 tropical and subtropical nations. The turtles can grow to more than 150 kilograms.

Though the two largest nesting populations are found in Costa Rica and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Hong Kong is home to a small number of nesting and foraging turtles. The population, however, is ever diminishing as threats to their habitat continue.

Miller often sees trawling boats and yachts on the south side of Lamma Island, which is a protected area for the turtles.

"We see the Marine Police around the island around all the time, they're always monitoring the area, they're great, really lovely people," said Miller. "And so I was really perplexed in this area during its nesting season, somebody hadn't made an effort to get the boats out of there at the time."

Hong Kong protects habitats

K.S. Cheung is a wetland and fauna conservation officer with Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. He says the area is well secured.

"It's not under our jurisdiction. We just call the Marine Police and they usually arrive in about 10 minutes," he said. "It's usually quite effective."

His department protects biodiversity in Hong Kong and is responsible for conserving the habitats of green sea turtles that nest on the territory's beaches.

"For the nesting green turtles on the Lamma Island, we've designated the Sham Wan beach as a restricted area so the public could not access basically the only regular nesting beach of the green turtle in Hong Kong from June to October," he added.

Turtles face many challenges

Green turtles face many challenges in Hong Kong. Pollution, development, scuba divers and speed boats are all serious hazards. But in the Hong Kong area, the largest threat has been the dinner table.

"In Hong Kong I would say the biggest problem would be the consumption of the eggs or even of the nesting turtles themselves," said Cheung.

In mainland China, turtle meat is considered a healthy delicacy. In Hong Kong, Cheung says, poor fishing communities used to rely on turtles and their eggs as food in lean years. Cheung says his department has managed to all but eradicate the consumption of eggs and turtles in Hong Kong.

But conservationists say in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, green turtles are still eaten.

Earthtrust, a wildlife conservation group, estimates that there are fewer than 200,000 nesting female green turtles in the world. And the development of coastal areas around the world limits the ability of some to lay eggs, since sea turtles need return to the beach where they hatched to nest. They can not do that, however, if the beach has been paved over.

Though numbers have been bleak in recent years, Cheung's department is optimistic that the green turtles will begin to flourish in Hong Kong waters. In 2007, the department released more than 60 juvenile turtles that had been artificially incubated in Hong Kong labs.

"I think they are endangered animals and they should receive our respect," said Cheung.

International treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species ban the trade of green turtle meat and eggs, or products made from them. Researchers here hope this effort along with their own will foster a resurgence of population.