Floating hospital in Lingshui Hainan dedicated to caring for sea turtles
In Xincun Port, Lingshui County in south China's Hainan province, there is a floating fishing village. Local residents seldom set foot on land, living in wooden cabins set up on rows of fishing rafts.
In this village on the sea, there stands one special cabin. The whitewashed structure is a hospital for rescued sea turtles, an endangered species that is under state protection in China.
Frederick C. Yeh, a 32-year-old Chinese-American, is the founder of the hospital. Yeh was planning on becoming a doctor when he graduated from medical school at Johns Hopkins University in the United States in 2005.
But when he returned to his childhood home in Hainan in 2007, Yeh discovered that sea turtles were sold for meat and shells in local markets.
"We have plenty of food that's available to us, but these animals are endangered, and there are not many left," he said. "If we keep on eating them, eventually they will be extinct."
Shocked, Yeh then changed his life plan and decided to devote himself to protecting the threatened chelonia.
In 2008, Yeh established Sea Turtle 911, a non-profit organization rescuing sea turtles across coastal regions in Hainan.
To better protect the ancient animals, Yeh founded the floating hospital in Xincun one year later to work with local law enforcement agencies and improve awareness of sea turtle conservation among local fishermen.
There are currently 14 "patients" being treated at the floating hospital. Among them are a Hawksbill turtle that lost one of its limbs, a green turtle with a sunken shell, and many other injured or sick olive ridley sea turtles.
To save more sea turtles, Yeh and his volunteers travel around Hainan to treat and tend to injured animals. Over the past four years, Yeh and the volunteers have saved more than 150 turtles,about 100 of which have been released back into the sea.
In addition to rescue and release efforts, Yeh and his team have also engaged in research. Yeh spent over 30,000 yuan (about 4,900 U.S. dollars) fitting a satellite tag to one of the released turtles to facilitate conservation research.
"It helps us learn more about migration: where they breed, where they forage and where they are spending most of their time," Yeh said. "If we can focus on the areas where the turtles spend most of their time, then we can put more energy toward protecting them."
Yeh is also working on artificial sea turtle breeding in cooperation with a local university, but despite these efforts, the living conditions of sea turtles are far from satisfactory.
A 2011 report by U.S.-based environmental organization Conservation International classified sea turtles living in waters surrounding India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as being the most endangered, describing Asia as a "dangerous area" for sea turtles.
In China, sea turtles are under state protection, yet threats remain.
"I used to see sea turtles laying eggs on the beach when I was young. But I haven't seen that for about ten years," said Zhang Qingjian, a local fisherman.
Yeh said the habitat for sea turtles around Hainan is "not very good" .
"There are a lot of fishing nets. A lot of people are not aware of sea turtle issues here, not only the fishing nets, but the pollution in the water," he said, adding the pollution can make the turtles sick.
Local people in Hainan have a long standing practice of hunting sea turtles for their meat, as well as gathering sea turtle eggs from beaches to be sold as delicacies. Such ingrained traditions are not easy to reverse.
Fu Lili, a local and volunteer with Sea Turtle 911, said her family are fishermen, and it is hard for her to face the fact that they eat sea turtles.
"Even though I am in turtle protection volunteer now, I've found that it is not easy to change their eating habits," Fu said." It takes time to raise their awareness of turtle protection."
However, experts say people who eat sea turtles have incorrect beliefs regarding its nutritional value. In fact, the animal can actually be dangerous to eat, as harmful substances can accumulate in its body over time.
Yeh also said sea turtles are not a healthy food source."There have been scientific reports about the high level of mercury in turtle meat, and it can accumulate a lot of pollutants," he said.
For Yeh, the best way to protect sea turtles lies in raising awareness. He and the volunteers are offering training courses across Hainan, calling for children and their families to join his protection efforts.
He hopes that one day there will be a celebrity who will speak for sea turtles and raise awareness about protecting them.
For the future, Yeh hopes there will come a day when sea turtles are no longer traded on the market.
"My plan is to stay in China and not go back to the Unites States until I see the end of the sea turtle market," he said. "I know that it will end at some point; hopefully, it will be the case that people will stop buying and there will be no market."
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