KHRAM ISLAND, Thailand (Reuters Life!) - Sea turtles have to battle humans hungry for their meat or eggs and fungal infections to survive, but in Thailand, the endangered species have the navy on their side.
Every year, dozens of mature sea turtles come ashore on Khram Island, an isolated island known as the biggest nesting site of sea turtles in the Gulf of Thailand, to lay their eggs.
The turtles born out of these eggs will also eventually return to the same island, some 30 km (19 miles) from the tourist beach town of Pattaya, when it is their time to lay eggs.
But the survival of these eggs, and the hatchlings, is under constant threat, which is why the navy has been protecting them for almost 20 years.
"Sea turtles in Thailand have not reached a critical endangered level," said Captain Aran Jiemyuu, Deputy Director of the Thai Navy's Sea Turtle Conservation Center which was set up in 1992.
"But that's because of our efforts. At Khram Island, we found green turtles, from 15 to 17-years-old laying eggs. It shows that the turtles laying eggs here may be turtles we nurtured and released to the sea or natural-born turtles on the island."
Sea turtles are recognised as an endangered species by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
But Aran said the number of sea turtles in Thailand has increased since the project was set up.
Five species of the sea turtles have been found along the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman sea coast, including olive ridley turtle, green turtle, hawksbill turtle, loggerhead turtle and leatherback turtle.
On the island, navy conservationists use a sharp metal stick to find nests. These are then encircled by protective pens.
The conservationists also put tags on each pen to identify the number of eggs, the date of nesting and the expected birth date. It takes between 45 and 60 days for eggs to hatch.
"We observe the sand. If the sand is softer, we will dig it. If we find turtle eggs, we will move all the eggs to the front beach for further nurturing," said Commander Tosporn Osathanond, chief of staff the conservation center.
Once born, the new baby turtles are collected and moved to tanks where they are fed minced fish and scrubbed to prevent fungal infections.
Some 15,000 green and hawksbill baby turtles are housed at the navy's conservation center each year. The newborns are kept in tanks and once they are strong enough, after about six months, they are released into the sea.
Sea turtles in Thailand are often killed for their meat or eggs, which are regarded as a delicacy. Many sea turtles also die when they are caught in fishing nets.
Killing the creatures and collecting their eggs is prohibited by law and violators risk a fine of up to $1,160 and jail.
Some environmentalists have praised the navy's efforts, saying its only right for the turtles to get human protection since the threats they face are largely man-made.
"Because humans destroy nature, natural conservation practices should begin with humans," said Captain Winai Klom-in, sea turtle specialist.
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)