Several projects have been under way in recent years to protect Kenya’s resident and migratory turtles — estimated to number about 800 — which lay their eggs on the coastal beaches. In the past they have been at ever-increasing risk (and to some extent still are) from the poaching of adult nesting females, egg collection, beach erosion, predators and pollution.
When the female turtle makes her slow way up the beach, she digs a hole about half a metre (l8 inches) deep with her flippers and may lay as many as a hundred eggs at a time. These she covers with sand and then returns to the sea. The egg laying is always a nocturnal affair. Between the months of June and November one female may return three or four times to lay up to a thousand eggs in different nests which she makes for herself along the beach.
For the people of the coast, turtles have always in the past been a welcome nutritional source as well as having their economic and cultural uses: their meat and eggs for food, their shell for ornaments and export, and their oil as a medicine ‘for the protection against evil spirits’. As such, the killing of adult nesting females and egg collection has been rampant, reducing their far greater numbers to the estimated l996 count of 800.
Measures taken by the Kenya Wildlife Service, private initiatives and conservation groups have, nonetheless, proved successful in curbing turtle exploitation through public education and participation and the provision of incentives.
In the main, these have involved giving financial inducement to local populations, who are encouraged to look out for turtle nests along the beaches, report them to the Kenya Wildlife Service to receive payment, and guard the nests until the young turtles are hatched. The incubation period is 7-10 weeks. In the presence of the local inhabitants and visiting tourists, officials from the KWS then release the young turtles into the sea.
At Bamburi, on the mainland north of Mombasa, where the rehabilitation of the gaping scars of the Bamburi cement factory’s limestone quarry, transforming it into a nature wonderland, has been one of the country’s most exciting environmental successes and a great tourist attraction, guides are hired to collect the eggs from the beaches before they can be poached or destroyed and deliver them to Bamburi’s artificial hatchery. Once hatched out, the infant turtles are released into the sea.
Of the five turtle species widely distributed along the Kenya coastline within the 32 km (20-mile) isobar, the entirely vegetarian green turtle (Cheloni mydas) is the most common and the most likely to be seen within 3 km (2 miles) of the shore. The other four are the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata); the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) ; the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and the giant leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) . And a giant it is, the largest of the marine turtles, up to 2 metres (7 feet) in length and weighing up to 680 kg (l,500 lbs). It derives the name ‘leatherback’ because of the leathery skin which covers its shell in place of the horny scales which cover all other seagoing turtles.
The second largest marine turtle, the loggerhead weighs up to 408 kg (900 lbs) and may grow to just over a metre (4 feet) in length or possibly more.
With the exception of the green turtle, the others are omnivorous and will eat almost anything — including coral. Their preference is for areas of sea-grasses and coral reefs, but they are highly migratory creatures and their nesting beaches are usually located a long way from their feeding grounds. As to their speed, the hawksbill can swim at 50 km (30 miles) an hour and the giant leatherback up to 74 km (46 mph) — both faster, it might be said, than traffic in the rush hours in Nairobi city centre.