- Conservationists in Cambodia have found nine sea turtle nests on a remote island off the country’s southwest coast, sparking hopes for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas).
- It’s the first time sea turtle nests have been spotted in the country in a decade of species decline.
- Two nests have been excavated to assess hatching success; conservationists estimate the nests could hold as many as 1,000 eggs.
- Globally, sea turtle populations are declining, largely due to hunting for food and the animals’ shells, used in jewelry; other threats to sea turtles include tourism development, pollution and climate change.
PHNOM PENH — In late December 2023, on a remote island in Preah Sihanouk province, off the southwest coast of Cambodia, a team of conservationists uncovered nine nests belonging to sea turtles after more than a decade of searching for them.
Cambodia’s marine turtle population has long been declining, but this discovery has sparked hope among conservationists that the critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and endangered green turtles (Chelonia mydas) have not vanished from Cambodia’s waters.
Nine nests were discovered by volunteers from the Royal Cambodian Navy who are stationed on the island and have been trained by Fauna & Flora to monitor for the presence of sea turtles after a nest was discovered in March 2022.
That initial finding of a single nest represented the first time that a sea turtle nest had been seen in Cambodia for a decade, highlighting the species’ decline.
During the final days of 2023, naval personnel uncovered the nine nests, two of which had already hatched, and were able to estimate that the nests could hold as many as 1,000 eggs. It is believed that all of the nests should have hatched before the end of January 2024.
Matt Glue, a marine technical specialist working with Fauna & Flora in Cambodia, was able to confirm that some of the newly discovered nests were laid by a green turtle due to a female being spotted on the beach during a rare daytime nesting event. The remaining nests, he said, could be from either green or hawksbill turtles, which cannot be told apart without observing the tracks of the nesting turtle.
“Hawksbills were mentioned as one possibility due to historical observation of their nests on the island, and adult females are occasionally observed in the surrounding waters by divers,” he added. “We cannot say for sure if any are from hawksbills, though the high number of eggs found in the excavated nests leans towards those of hawksbill turtles.”
Green turtles typically lay 70-100 eggs per clutch, while a clutch of hawksbill turtle eggs usually contains between 130 and 180 eggs, Glue said.
“[The naval volunteer] on the island excavated two turtle nests to assess the hatching success rate,” Glue said. “He counted 192 eggs with a 99% hatching success rate from the first nest and 138 eggs with a 98% success rate in the second – these are great success rates for turtle nests, showing that these beaches are highly suitable for the safe incubation of turtle eggs.”
Fauna & Flora did not disclose the name of the island, although it is a more remote island controlled by the navy as part of Cambodia’s border defense.
A representative of the navy confirmed they were aware of the turtle hatchlings but declined to provide more information, directing queries to the National Committee for Maritime Security, which could not be reached for comment.
The relative lack of human activity in this area has made it an ideal habitat for green turtles and hawksbill turtles. However, the hatchlings still face daunting odds.
“It is estimated that the survival rate of sea turtle hatchlings is one in one thousand,” Glue said. “So, if they manage to defy the odds, perhaps only one of these hatchlings will survive to adulthood.”
Sea turtles facing an uncertain future in Cambodia and beyond
Populations of sea turtles such as green turtles and hawksbills have been on the decline globally, largely due to hunters who killed the marine animals in order to sell the turtle shell as jewelry. A 2019 paper found that as many as 9 million hawksbill turtles have been killed by humans in the past 180 years, with fishing and poaching posing a direct threat to the species, while tourism developments, industrial pollution and climate change have affected the hawksbills’ habitats, rendering them critically endangered as per the IUCN Red List.
While initiatives are underway to trace illegally traded sea turtle shells, Glue maintained that there was no evidence to suggest that this trade was an ongoing threat in Cambodia.
“You can occasionally observe very old items of turtle shell jewelry for sale in the markets, perhaps created before the trade became illegal,” he told Mongabay. “This is not unique to Cambodia and can often be seen in markets throughout regions where hawksbill turtles occur.”
Indeed, Glue pointed out that Cambodians opt not to eat hawksbill turtles due to the toxicity of the meat. Hawksbills are omnivores and will consume a range of algae, corals, small fish and crustaceans, but it’s their predilection for sea sponges – which often contain toxins – that renders them inedible to humans while simultaneously providing them with a source of food that is free from competition. But the historical consumption of sea turtle eggs in Cambodia was highlighted in a 2023 paper authored by Fauna & Flora staff in the United Kingdom published in Oryx, the international journal of conservation.
The same paper found that residents of Preah Sihanouk province identified fishing and trawling – both legal and illegal – as key drivers of a decline in sea turtle sightings across Kampot, Kep, Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces, where numerous species of sea turtle have been spotted, but also where they have been reported as bycatch by fishers. Among the species most often identified among bycatch by Cambodian fishers were green turtles and hawksbills.
Since 2009, the capture, trade and consumption of sea turtles has been illegal in Cambodia, but across the country’s coast, turtle consumption still continues, according to Paul Ferber, a veteran conservationist and founder of Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC).
MCC has worked off the coast of Kep, Cambodia’s smallest province, since 2013, with the group’s first major victory coming in 2018 when the government agreed to sign off on an 11,500-hectare (28,400-acre) marine fisheries management area (MFMA), which legally restricts communities from using more destructive fishing methods. This was combined with the deployment of Conservation and Anti-Trawling Structures – underwater concrete structures that simultaneously snag trawler nets and provide a breeding ground for a variety of marine life.
Ferber told Mongabay that the legal and physical protections offered to the waters off Kep have seen marine life thrive.
“These blocks have created a passive deterrent,” he said. “We’ve seen seagrass increase, a return of dugongs, an increase of dolphin populations, a massive increase in fish – and the fishermen are seeing larger, better-quality catches.”
Cambodia’s dugong (Dugong dugon) population has long been on the decline and the species is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List, while the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) is endangered.
Ferber attributes the success to the collaboration between MCC and the Cambodian government in implementing the MFMA, which he said can only be done effectively because MCC is based on one of the islands off the coast of Kep and works very closely with the local communities.
Buying back the bycatch
But the return of marine species to Kep’s waters brought with it the renewed attention of fishers, for whom turtles became an increasingly common species found in their bycatch. The turtles, which Ferber said were mostly green turtles, were being sold by fishers to middlemen who then illegally sold the meat for consumption.
“We knew the turtle bycatch was happening and we knew it was happening a lot,” Ferber explained. “As everything was increasing, instead of it being one turtle every month or two months being caught by bycatch, we were starting to get reports of weekly catches.”
In response, MCC arrived at the conclusion that to address the issue, they needed to work with fishers and traders.
“We started to buy the turtles. Now, this was not what we wanted to do. We didn’t agree with the concept ethically,” said Ferber. “But we made a decision that, first of all, if we didn’t buy them, they were going to die. Second, we can then keep a record of exactly how much bycatch is happening and then we can give all of the information to the people in Phnom Penh who really want to see change.”
Thap Rachana, MCC’s executive director, said that 77 turtles were purchased indirectly by MCC and ultimately saved from the markets, but this strategy was a short-term solution to encourage stronger action from the government in implementing the law in Kep province.
“Most fishermen now know that we’re not buying turtles in the same way, but they understand what we’re trying to do,” she said. “Sometimes, they bring them to us and ask for $20 or $30.”
This is significantly less than what the turtles could sell for at market, depending on their weight, she added.
Rachana emphasized that this approach could only work due to MCC’s 24/7 presence in the MFMA and the resulting relationship that their staff have built with the local communities.
Cambodia’s coastal fire sale
Elsewhere along Cambodia’s coast, other legal protections have failed to prevent marine habitats from being developed.
The country’s first marine protected area, which covers more than 47,000 hectares (116,000 acres) of land and sea across the Koh Rong archipelago off the coast of Preah Sihanouk province, has seen relatively expansive tourism development that has seen the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem become popular destinations. But while these developments largely left the islands’ ecosystems intact, almost the entirety of Koh Rong has been handed to Royal Group, which plans to build a $300 million airport on the island, as well as golf and polo courses, casinos, resorts and a business center.
Similarly, the Koh S’dach archipelago in Koh Kong province has long been the target of conservationists hoping to establish an MFMA similar to that of Kep, but the privatization of islands and the subsequent construction of artificial beaches and bays has seriously damaged the coral and seagrass upon which a host of marine life feeds.
The conversion of Ream National Park to a 39,634-hectare (97,937-acre) marine protected area has done little to prevent more than 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) of the park and Koh Thmei being handed over to Cambodia’s political elite, including relatives of Prime Minister Hun Manet.
Even in Kampot province, which sits next to Kep, development has posed a challenge to implementing an MFMA, with the boundaries repeatedly being redrawn due to ongoing land reclamation projects. Meanwhile, in Kep, the island of Koh Tonsay – the largest in the MFMA that MCC helped to establish – has been awarded to Try Pheap, a powerful tycoon who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his involvement in Cambodia’s illegal timber trade.
Im Rachna, spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, did not respond to questions sent by Mongabay.
Glue of Fauna & Flora said that he hopes to see the discovery of turtles’ nests as “a driver for establishing marine management initiatives across Cambodia’s offshore islands where the threat of development is currently minimal.”
Marine conservation is a growing concern in Cambodia, but plans are afoot to reverse the trend of deteriorating ecosystems and collapsing marine fisheries, with the Asian Development Bank approving a $71 million project in December 2022 that aims to regenerate 40% of Cambodia’s near-shore fisheries in Kampot, Kep, Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces, all of which are home to a diverse range of marine life.
“Interest in protecting Cambodia’s marine environment is continuing to grow, with multiple multimillion-dollar projects now active throughout the coastline,” Glue told Mongabay. “If these projects are implemented correctly, coastal communities will have a stronger standing to counteract privatization and development.”
Miller, E. A., McClenachan, L., Uni, Y., Phocas, G., Hagemann, M. E., & Van Houtan, K. S. (2019). The historical development of complex global trafficking networks for marine wildlife. Science Advances, 5(3). doi:10.1126/sciadv.aav5948
Duffy, H., McNamara, A., Mulligan, B., West, K., Leng, P., Vong, R., … Teoh, M. (2023). An assessment of marine turtle population status and conservation in Cambodia. Oryx, 57(2), 160-170. doi:10.1017/s0030605322000862
Banner image: The Critically Endangered Hawksbill turtle. Photo by Gary Rinaldi/Flickr.