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  The Straits Times, 4 Aug 05
Released into the wild
137 Singapore-born hawksbill turtle hatchlings are released to sea, 2 months after their mum laid eggs at East Coast Park

BARELY a week old, 137 Singapore natives made their maiden journey to sea on Tuesday morning. Oversized flippers working furiously, the tiny hawksbill turtles heeded the inexorable call of the ocean and, as one, struggled across the sandy beach of East Coast Park into the unknown.

It had been two months since a female turtle made its way onto the beach at East Coast Park to lay eggs. To prevent them from being stolen or trampled on, the clutch was rounded up and incubated in relative safety at the National Institute of Education.

Their surrogate mother was resident turtle expert C.H. Diong, an associate professor of natural sciences and science education at NIE. He was an extremely successful midwife. Only four of the 151 eggs failed to hatch. The rest of the hatched baby turtles, except for 10 adopted by Underwater World Singapore, were released yesterday.

Said National Parks Board chairman and NIE director Leo Tan: 'This is a token conservation effort. 'Turtles have an inborn homing device. Hopefully one or two of our new citizens will come back to their birthplace to lay eggs again.'

To test whether those that return are of the same or related batches, tissue samples have been taken from the baby turtles and their DNA is being sequenced.

It takes a turtle about 20 years to reach reproductive maturity, but only one or two out of every thousand hatchlings survive to reach this stage.

The hawksbill is one of three species found in the region and the only one to have made occasional ventures - around once or twice a year - to Singapore to lay its eggs. Its usual breeding grounds range from East Malaysia to Borneo in this region, but it is also found along the Atlantic coastline.

The hawksbill is critically endangered because its beautiful mottled shell is prized for making ornaments.

That occasional turtles come so far south to lay eggs, traversing areas with heavy marine traffic, is not necessarily a good sign. It could mean their normal breeding grounds have been disturbed.

Added Prof Diong: 'These are incidental landings, possibly from disoriented turtles. But it's a blessing to us.'

East Coast Park is the only area on the mainland where turtles can venture to lay eggs.

Reclaimed areas elsewhere, which have sharp drops into the ocean, are inaccessible for them, explained NParks chief executive officer Tan Wee Kiat.

Tuesday's release doesn't look like it will be the only one here this year. Another batch of 89 eggs was found at East Coast Park just last week. It was possibly from the same turtle, since they can lay up to four batches of eggs, breaking each time for a period of several weeks. The second batch is currently being incubated at NIE.

To ensure they hatch successfully, the conditions must be exactly right. Temperature, moisture content and air flow must be constant and the eggs must be kept in their original position when they are moved so that the air-breathing embryos are not crushed. An exact temperature of 29.7 deg C is required to get half male, and half female turtles, since slight changes in temperature affect the reptiles' eventual sex.

'Man has done his best, now it's all up to nature,' Prof Diong said.

Members of the public who see turtles laying eggs on the beach should contact the police, who will liaise with NParks to assess whether the eggs should be removed.

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