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Home» Feature (Archive) » 1 September 2010

Round-trip journey: Singaporeís hawksbill turtles return home 1 Sep 2010

The release of more than a dozen hawksbill turtles this past week, in waters off the coast ‎of the city-state of Singapore, was extraordinary for several reasons.‎

Eight of the 3-year old turtles released with satellite transmitters affixed to their ‎carapaces were actually the offspring of hawksbill turtles that had been sent from ‎the Underwater World Singapore (UWS) aquarium to Japanís Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium ‎‎(PNPA), in 1997 and 2002. ‎


Since receiving the donated turtles, PNPA’s captive breeding programme has succeeded in ‎producing hundreds of hawksbill hatchlings – thirteen of which were returned as ‎juveniles to Singapore in May 2010, in preparation for the August release.

(Five of the ‎turtles were only a year and a half old, and were not large enough to be fitted with ‎satellite transmitters). ‎


Apart from the fact that any release of hawksbill turtles is a relatively rare occurrence ‎‎(see the IOSEA Satellite Tracking Metadatabase), the fact that these young animals were ‎the progeny of captive-reared parents and were the object of an international exchange ‎which returned them to their native waters, added to the uniqueness of the event.‎

Five mature hawksbill turtles, each weighing around 50-60 kg, that ‎had been kept at UWS for fifteen years or more, were released at the same time. These ‎were turtles that had been caught in nets, stranded or confiscated and handed over to the ‎care of UWS. Based on other studies showing the successful adaptation of captive turtles ‎to life in the wild, the experts on hand had no qualms about returning them to the sea. ‎

Although they were flipper-tagged, the larger animals were not fitted with transmitters, so ‎their precise movements will not be monitored – perhaps a missed opportunity to collect ‎information on the survivorship and behaviour of once captive animals.‎

Big ‎Sister Island, south of the mainland, was chosen as a release site because of its relative ‎tranquility. Nonetheless, the massive container ships that passed by the island provided ‎an impressive backdrop. ‎

Hawksbill turtles have been known to nest in Singapore in the past, along the east coast ‎and on the industrialized island of Jurong, but it remains an extremely rare event.


UWS still has a fairly large stock of sea turtles of various species in its collection. For its ‎part, PNPA’s rare captive-breeding programme continues to provide a unique display for ‎members of the Japanese public. PNPA has had more success breeding loggerhead ‎turtles in captivity, with hatching success averaging around 60% over the last decade, ‎while the success rate for hawksbills stands at only about 15%, on average.‎

Dr Maliki Osman, ‎Parliamentary Secretary, gave a speech reiterating Singapore’s ‎commitment to biodiversity conservation.
Singapore’s Ministry of National Development was represented at the release event by ‎Parliamentary Secretary, Dr Maliki Osman, who gave a speech reiterating Singapore’s ‎commitment to biodiversity conservation. Representatives of PNPA and UWS were ‎actively involved in the release, as were Dr. George Balaz and Marc Rice, from Hawaii, ‎who provided technical support during the attachment of the satellite transmitters. ‎School groups, environmental NGOs and media representatives were also present in ‎ample number.

Unfortunately, Dr C.H. Diong, who has a long history of involvement in ‎sea turtle conservation work in Singapore, was unable to attend because of another ‎engagement. ‎

The turtle release was preceded by a moderated forum held at Underwater World ‎Singapore, which featured leading members of Singapore’s environmental community. ‎

The presentations and stimulating discussion that followed offered some interesting ‎insights into nature conservation in a highly urbanized environment.‎


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One can always debate the conservation value and cost-effectiveness of initiatives that represent a major departure from in situ conservation.  Having successfully demonstrated that ‎sea turtles can be bred in captivity, it is understandable that PNPA would wish to ‎‎‘complete the circle’ by returning the offspring to the wild and to monitor their fate. ‎Although no plans were announced to display the turtles’ movements in real time on the ‎web – perhaps missing out on another public education / awareness opportunity – it is ‎understood that the organizers are keen to present some preliminary findings to the ‎Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Nagoya, this coming October.

The event served as an occasion to sensitize Singaporeans – politicians, ‎environmentalists, academics and the general public alike – about the marine biodiversity ‎that is not too distant from their shores and certainly residing in the waters of many of the ‎neighbouring countries that Singaporeans like to visit.

To the extent that this well-‎publicised event reminded them of their common responsibility to contribute to biodiversity conservation at home and ‎abroad, it may have served a useful purpose.  And, hopefully, the Government of ‎Singapore will demonstrate its commitment in this regard more formally, by signing the ‎IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU in the not too distant future.‎


UNEP © IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU Secretariat, c/o UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific,
United Nations Building, Rajdamnern Nok Avenue, Bangkok, 10200, Thailand
Tel: + (662) 288 1471 ; Fax: + (662) 288 3041 / 288 1029; E-mail: IOSEA Secretariat
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