Endangered Turtles Bred in Captivity in Israel to Help Save Species

MIKHMORET (Reuters) -
A researcher draws blood from a green sea turtle as part of a conservation programme at the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center, in Mikhmoret north of Tel Aviv, Israel September 23, 2019. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

On a Mediterranean beach in Israel, a newly-hatched baby turtle fumbles along the sand, making its way to the sea for the very first time.

The hatchling, one of 60 to be released into the wild this week, is part of a unique conservation program run by the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center.

Green turtles are endangered worldwide, the World Wildlife Fund says. Among other hazards, they are threatened by hunting, human encroachment on the beaches where they nest, and pollution of their feeding grounds offshore.

According to the Israeli rescue center, only about 20 female green turtles nest along the country’s Mediterranean coast during a breeding season that usually lasts from May until August.

To help the turtle population, Israeli nature authorities have declared some beaches nature reserves and with the rescue center have been relocating threatened turtle nests to safe hatcheries since the 1980s.

In 2002, the rescue center went a step further and began recruiting turtles for a special breeding stock that would one day help populate the sea with their offspring, in one of the few such conservation programs in the world.

About 200 baby turtles are expected to hatch by the end of the summer, said the center’s manager, Yaniv Levi.

“We’re only at the beginning; it’s the first year, and we expect that in the coming years we will [see] 1,000 hatchlings a year,” Levi said.

Roderic Mast, the president of the Oceanic Society and co-chair of the IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, said that releasing the hatchlings to the sea immediately was critical to their chances of survival.

“In terms of conservation, nothing is more important than protection of turtles and their habitats and behaviors in the wild,” Mast said in an email interview.