Of the marine turtles two, the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) breed regularly on the island’s beaches. Both were more abundant in the past. Though records are sparse, old fishermen support this and so does the toponomy of at least one area, Chelones. This is a fisherman’s cove in the Karpas adjoining an area of extensive sandy beaches stretching to Cape Andreas. Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are also occasionally found in the waters of Cyprus. No nesting activity of this species has been noted in Cyprus or in the Mediterranean.
Exploitation of turtles in the Mediterranean, from the 1920s to the 1970s, has decimated turtle populations. Tens of thousands of turtles, mainly green turtles, were shipped from the north-eastern Mediterranean, to Egypt, where there was a market for them, and to Europe where there was great demand for turtle soup. The intensive use of beaches, for tourism and recreational purposes, is now threatening turtles in the Mediterranean by depriving them of their nesting grounds. Many turtles also drown or are killed when caught in fishermen’s nets or on long lines. Turtles and especially the Green turtles are, as a result, on the verge of extinction in the Mediterranean. It is tentatively estimated that the current annual nesting population of turtles is about 500 female Green turtles and about 3,000-5,000 Loggerheads.
Both Green and Loggerhead turtles have been declared, by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), as Endangered. Obviously the Green turtle in this sea is more endangered due to its smaller population. Both species are protected under the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). They are also protected under the Barcelona Convention (UNEP) and an Action Plan for their conservation has been approved by Mediterranean States within the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP). The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the CITES Convention also protect turtles. Cyprus has ratified these. The European Union has listed both species as Priority Species for conservation in the Annexes of the Habitats Directive.
Most Mediterranean countries have now legislation protecting turtles. Cyprus was probably the first country in this sea to legally protect turtles, along with dolphins and seals, by passing legislation (Regulations made under the Fisheries Law) as early as 1971.
In 1976 a project was conceived to help the marine turtles of Cyprus. Two years later, in 1978, a project was launched by the Fisheries Department. It includes a seasonal station and a “hatchery” at Lara. The Cyprus Government finances the project. In 1980, it received World Wildlife Fund support for three years, as an IUCN/WWF project. In 1990 it received assistance from the European Union as a MedSPA Project. The Cyprus Turtle Conservation Project is the first turtle conservation project in the Mediterranean.
The main thrust of the project aims at:
- Protecting and managing turtle nesting beaches
- Protecting eggs and hatchlings from predation – and human activities
- Protecting adult turtles
- Monitoring the turtle population and nesting activity in Cyprus
- Raising public awareness in turtle conservation
In 1976 and 1977, thorough surveys of the turtle nesting beaches were undertaken. They showed that Green turtles were breeding on several beaches, including those of Agia Napa and the unspoilt surf swept west coast beaches north of Pafos, mainly at Lara and Toxeftra. Since then, nesting at Agia Napa and on some beaches in Pafos, has ceased, because of their intensive use for tourism and recreation or because they were degraded by sand extraction. Loggerhead turtles nest on the same beaches and also on the extensive beaches of Chrysochou Bay (mainly in the Polis/ Limni/ Yialia area), which are their main nesting area on the island. Regular but less dense nesting or occasional nesting also takes place on a number of other beaches. There is also nesting of both Green and Loggerhead turtles on the north coast of the island, in the Karpas peninsula and on the beaches at Agia Eirini in Morphou Bay.
Turtles are an ancient group of reptiles which, like the marine mammals such as dolphins, seals and whales, have “reversed” their evolution and returned to the sea. This reverse process is, however, incomplete and though turtles have adapted well to life in the sea they are excellent swimmers and can stay underwater for long periods, their ties to their land-adapted ancestors are unmistakable. Turtles still have to breathe air and they have to come up on land to lay their eggs.
Turtles lay every 2-5 years. Loggerheads nest mainly from the middle of May to about the middle of August, while Greens start and finish about two weeks later. During the breeding season they lay on average 3 times, every two weeks. Loggerheads in Cyprus lay about 80 eggs per clutch while Green turtles lay on average 120 eggs. In Loggerheads the eggs are laid in chambers about 30-50 cm deep while Green turtles lay their eggs deeper, at about 50-80 cm. In turtles sex determination is dependent on the incubation temperature. Incubation at 29o – 30oC results in half the hatchlings being male and the other half female. Lower temperatures result in male hatchlings. Higher temperatures produce females. This means that eggs laid early in the season are more likely to produce male hatchlings than eggs laid later on.
Turtle hatchlings are attracted to lights. The hatchlings emerge from the sand at night, about seven weeks after the eggs are laid. They head directly for the sea. Their location of the sea is based on their attraction to the lightest part of the horizon – which is normally the sea. Hatchlings will however be attracted to artificial lights near the nesting beach. If they get disorientated and go towards such lights, they increase their chances of falling prey to foxes. If they remain on land during the day they will die very quickly of the heat. Nesting females are shy and wary of lights and movement on the beaches when they come up to lay their eggs. If disturbed they will go straight back to the safety of the sea – interrupting their nesting. If disturbed on consecutive nights they will drop their eggs in the sea. This is why the public is not allowed on the nesting beaches at night. Deep car tyre grooves on beaches also misdirect hatchlings, which can follow the tracks for hundreds of meters, with the same dangers facing them.
On surveys undertaken early on in the project, on the extensive beaches of Polis/Limni and on the beaches of the Lara area, more than 80% of the nests were found dug up and eaten by foxes. This usually happens when the first hatchlings emerge from the nest, bringing to the surface the smells of the egg chamber. Once the hatchlings reach the sea new enemies face them there. Predation is, however, natural and for thousands of years, enough hatchlings reached the sea and survived to keep a stable population. It is human interference that has caused the demise of the turtles. To counteract this, control of predation has been undertaken, so as to increase the number of hatchlings reaching the sea.
In the Lara-Toxeftra Reserve, in Chrysochou Bay and on most other beaches, all nests are protected in situ, i.e., where the eggs are laid, by placing special aluminium cages over them. These allow the hatchlings to escape to the sea, as soon as they emerge from the sand, but prevent foxes from getting at the nest. A “hatchery” is used for a small number of nests, (about 15-20 nests p.a.), that cannot be adequately protected where they were laid, e.g., on some tourist beaches, such as Coral Bay. The “hatchery” is a fenced off part of the beach where eggs are transferred and re-buried.
A number of nests are also relocated up the same beach as they are laid too near the sea and can be inundated by waves during periods of rough weather and perish. In both cases of egg relocation, care is taken to rebury the eggs at the right depth so as not to interfere with the incubation temperatures.
Though there are fluctuations in the number of turtles nesting from year to year, on average, in the last 5 years, there were over 200 nests of both species in the Lara/Toxeftra Reserve area each year. There were also over 400 Loggerhead nests each year in Chrysochou Bay over the same period. It is estimated that from these nests over 30,000 hatchlings reach the sea. These numbers are many times the number that would normally reach the sea if the nests were not protected. In the sea of course more dangers await them and few will survive to grow up and lay their own eggs.
The breeding population of Green Turtles here is about 100 females, nesting in the Lara/Toxeftra area mainly (105 females have been tagged so far). The Loggerhead population is somewhat larger and is now estimated at over 500 females. Turtles are tagged and their reappearance on the nesting beaches (and in the nets of fishermen around the Mediterranean) is recorded. The number of nests found each year on our beaches is also an indication of the size of populations and of trends.
Though the time required for turtles to reach maturity is still uncertain, it is estimated that Loggerhead turtles mature at about 20 years and Green turtles at about 30 years. Turtles imprint on the beaches on which they incubated and hatched. When mature they will find their way back to the same beaches to lay their own eggs. The imprinting mechanism, through which they know which beach they incubated on, is based on a variety of clues, but mainly on geomagnetic forces, which provide the hatchlings with a kind of GPS that helps them navigate in later life. Imprinting evidently takes place during incubation but the first descent of the hatchlings down to the sea is also deemed to play a role. To avoid interference with this mechanism, non-magnetic (aluminium) cages are used for protecting nests from foxes. Precautions are also taken to disturb as little as possible the hatchlings incubation, emergence from the nest and their descent to the sea, as these are critical for their later life. Chemicals in the sand evidently also play a role in fine-tuning beach location by the turtle.
Raising turtles to larger sizes and releasing them has also been researched into. Several hundred mainly Green turtle hatchlings were kept in sea-cages in Pafos harbour and were released at various ages ranging from one to ten years old. Pending results from this head-starting experiment, further rearing of turtles has been suspended, as it is not clear if the benefits from such rearing outweigh the dangers that are also involved.
In 1989 the Lara/Toxeftra coastal region and adjacent sea was declared into a Protected Area, under the same law and is managed as such by the Department of Fisheries and Marine Research. It covers a stretch of coastline, 10 km long, from the location known as Aspros, near Agios Georghios, to Argaki tou Yousouphi, about three kilometres north of Lara. This includes the main beaches from Toxeftra to the north Lara bays. The sea area protected stretches to the 20m isobath, which is about 1.5 km from the shore. The management measures aim at avoiding human interference with the breeding activity, both during nesting and during the incubation and hatching period of the eggs. The beaches of Polis/Limni/Yialia are now a NATURA 2000 site and management regulations for this site have been prepared.
Without habitat protection the long term prospects for the survival of the turtles in Cyprus, irrespective of the success of the project in increasing the recruitment of young turtles into the population, are, at best, doubtful. As turtles return to their natal beaches to reproduce, they form local populations, the survival of which depends on their protection on those particular beaches. In other words, protecting turtle in one area/country will not help turtles in another area. Currently the Mediterranean Green Turtle nests mainly in Cyprus and Turkey, with some nesting in Syria. There is also some sparse nesting in Israel and Lebanon. Loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean nest mainly in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. Some nesting also takes place in Libya (now being assessed) and Israel, while sparse nesting takes place also in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia and on some southern Italian islands.
Every year, since 1989, training courses in Turtle Conservation Techniques and Beach Management are held for Mediterranean scientists and Protected Area managers for the United Nations Environment Programme (RAC/SPA of the Mediterranean Action Plan). The Cyprus Wildlife Society (CWS) holds these courses in cooperation with the Department of Fisheries and Marine Research. The CWS, which has also been helping in running the project for many years, undertook to run the project in 2010 on behalf of the DFMR, on the basis of Agreements entered with the DFMR. A similar agreement was entered into for 2011-2012.
Lara Reserve Regulations
The Lara/Toxeftra area is protected under the Fisheries Law, Cap 135, and Regulations. The purpose of the legislation is to protect the nesting turtles and their eggs and hatchlings, near and on the nesting beaches. The Protected Area starts at Aspros (near Agios Georghios) in the south and extends to Argaki tou Yousouphi in the north (about 3 km north of the Lara Turtle Station).
In the Protected area it is forbidden to:
- Place any sun-bed, umbrella, caravan, tent, etc.
- Stay on the beaches or the coastal area at night
- Drive any vehicle on a beach or tolerate such action
- Fish, except with a rod and line
- Use or anchor a boat or tolerate such action
- Collect any ghost crabs (Ocypode cursor) from these beaches. These crabs are a protected species everywhere in Cyprus
- Subject to other legislation it is illegal to:
- Leave your rubbish on the beaches or anywhere else in the area
- Light fires on the beaches or anywhere else in the area
- Visitors to the Lara Station are requested to:
- Stick to the existing paths and not to disturb the sand-dune vegetation