When the devastating Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami struck in 2004 it killed some 35,000 people in Sri Lanka and caused widespread devastation.
Charith Dilshan was one of the lucky ones. When the waves struck he, his mother, two sisters and brother, along with other villagers, survived by fleeing to a temple on a nearby hill.
After the first large wave brought fishing boats crashing into the walls of their house, Charith’s uncle, who had been a seaman in Japan, told everyone to run for the temple to save their lives.
According to Charith, after the first wave struck the beach became ‘like a desert’ as the ocean receded.
Thankfully his family and other villagers managed to reach the temple before the the second, most destructive wave struck the coast.
Though they survived with their lives, Charith’s family home was destroyed and they, like many, resettled further away from the coast.
However, after his brush with death, Charith developed a deepened appreciation for nature and a feeling of responsibility to protect it.
As a Buddhist, he believes, ‘If you respect nature, nature will respect you.’
As such he decided to transform his family’s beachfront land into a sea turtle hatchery and sanctuary, where he protects endangered sea turtle eggs until they can be safely released, and rehabilitates injured or disabled turtles that cannot survive on their own.
Out of seven species of sea turtles that exist in the world, five come to this beach to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, these eggs are vulnerable to being destroyed by animals, reptiles or humans. Only one in 1,000 baby sea turtles will survive to adulthood.
Charith has a unique opportunity to protect unhatched eggs from potential threats. Dogs, monitors, snakes and humans all pose threats to the survival of sea turtle eggs while they incubate in the sand.
Mother turtles lay around 100 eggs at a time. Charith will carefully move these eggs from their vulnerable position on the beach to a special protected location.
Once they hatch, Charith prefers to release the baby turtles immediately, as they would naturally do, but he will often keep them until sundown to give them a higher chance of evading predators.
Charith also cares for injured turtles and tries to keep the beach as clean and safe as possible.
Fishing hooks and netting, which are discarded by fishermen, wash up daily on the beach and kill many sea turtles. Charith now tries to educate local fishermen not to discard hooks and netting into the sea.
As well as being killed or injured by hooks, sea turtles can also often become trapped in nets, injured by boats, or become sick from consuming plastics floating in the ocean. Thirty to forty endangered turtle bodies wash up on Charith’s beach every year.
However, with Charith’s help many turtles who would have perished survive and are returned to the ocean.
In one recent case, he discovered a turtle that had lost a flipper, possibly due to a boat or getting entangled in a net. Following its injury it starved at sea which caused air to accumulate inside its body. This, and the missing flipper, now prevents her from being able to balance herself or to dive under water. Because she cannot survive at sea Charith will continue to care for her.
Other turtles, once rehabilitated, he prefers to release immediately to the wild.