The discovery last month of a clutch of turtle eggs in a nest on Racha Island, about 25 kilometres south of Phuket, raised hopes.
“Only once in the past 20 years has a turtle nest been found on Koh Racha,” said Hirun Kanghae, Acting Chief of the Marine Endangered Species Unit (MESU) at Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC).
Flipper tracks in the sand led to the nest, buried near The Racha Resort. The nest contained 94 eggs in total, but seven were already broken when resort staff discovered it.
“We moved the remaining 87 eggs to a safe place on the island. The mother was not found; we believe it was a big turtle,” Mr Hirun explained.
Mr Hirun pointed out that historically turtles laying eggs in Phuket tend to nest on Kamala, Layan, Mai Khao and Bang Tao beaches and at Patok Beach on Racha Island.
However, of the hundreds of turtle nests found in Phuket and Koh Racha in 2008, only 0.7% of that number have been found so far this year.
Of note, another expert explained that turtles tended to nest in cycles, with some years passing with very few nests laid. “This is normal,” he said.
Yet Mr Hirun was plain in his point of view of what has forced turtles away from Phuket’s beaches: “Damn humans”.
“This is because of human activity at the beaches, most importantly trash and pollution, but also the buildings along the coast,” he said.
Trash and pollution make turtles attempting to return sick and die, while increased fishing is also contributing to the problem, with many turtles caught up in fishing nets, even fishing nets that have been dumped into the sea.
“Beach erosion is another factor,” Mr Hirun said. “Turtles may not be able to climb over the erosion to lay their eggs on the beach,” he added.
Releasing thousands of baby turtles hatched in captivity may be helping to replenish the local turtle population, but it is very difficult to tell, Mr Hirun noted.
“As far as we can tell most baby turtles released never come back to Phuket beaches,” he said, noting that the DMCR began such mass-release projects as far back as 1979.
“We started implanting microchips in these turtles, but many DMCR officers trying to track these turtles over the years have not had microchip readers,” he added.
The DMCR records all reports of turtles found on beaches in the Andaman region, Mr Hirun explained, with about 50 turtles found around Phuket so far this year, about 18 last year, but about 60 in 2015.
Although supporting the project to record sightings, Mr Hirun gave a moment of pause. “These are only sightings, we have no idea if these are baby turtles released here that have come back. We just don’t know,” he said.
However, of the microchipped turtles that do return to the Andaman region, most of them return to Trang and Krabi provinces, not Phuket, Mr Hirun noted.
The lack of a comprehensive and co-ordinated campaign to track turtles in Phuket has spurred the DMCR Region 6 office to launch a new project.
“We released 100 baby turtles three years ago and this time, in addition to having them fitted with microchips in the left shoulder, for the first time we added tags to the front right flippers so that if local residents and fishermen find one of the turtles, they can report to us the number on the tag,” Mr Hirun said.
“Currently, about 90% of these turtles are well and healthy in the ocean, but they have not come back to Phuket’s beaches yet. Maybe they will do in future. It takes time, about 10-15 years,” he added.