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Photo of turtle on Maldives airport runway goes viral

The tarmac was laid over a nesting ground.



A photo of a turtle laying eggs on the Maafaru island’s new airstrip went viral over the weekend and caught the attention of international media.

The widely-shared photo of the green sea turtle next to three eggs on the runway sparked debate about the the environmental cost of infrastructure development in the Maldives.

Most turtles return to the same beach where they were hatched to lay eggs. The Maafaru island in the northern Noonu atoll is a nesting site for the endangered species. Despite the construction of the airport last year, turtles continue to come ashore for nesting, the Maafaru council told the press.

The turtle in the photo was reportedly healthy and safely guided back to the sea by locals last Tuesday. However, she has since been found dead, local media reported Sunday morning.

Dr Claire Lomas, a sea turtle veterinarian, told the Maldives Independent that it was likely the turtle in the photo was disturbed by the change to the area. 

“It’s difficult for me to say from the picture why she laid the eggs there but turtles have been known to abort their eggs if they get disturbed during the nesting process,” she said.

“It is a powerful picture and I think it highlights how important beaches are for sea turtles and that this should be considered important for preserving turtle populations in the Maldives. Human development nearly always impacts the environment and I think it is important to be mindful of this and take steps to minimise the disturbance and protecting areas that are important for species like sea turtles.”

Turtles were protected in the Maldives in 1994. Five species are found in the country.

The Maafaru airport was described as a “gift” from the United Arab Emirates, which financed the project with a US$60 million grant from the Abu Dhabi Fund after a member of the UAE royal family purchased the nearby Cheval Blanc Randheli resort.

The entire island was stripped of its trees. The 2.2 kilometre-long, 40 metre-wide runway was completed last August. After missing several deadlines, the Singapore-based contractor Tuff Infrastructure is targeting a May 31 opening date. 

The Anti-Corruption Commission is meanwhile looking into complaints made against the developer over alleged wrongdoing in the bidding process and unpaid payments to subcontractors.

According to Vnews, a proposal to develop an airport on Maafaru was previously rejected after an Environment Impact Assessment was conducted in 2009.

The project was rejected because the island was a breeding ground for turtles. But neither the EIA nor the ministry’s decision is now available on Environment Protection Agency’s website.

The Maafaru project was kicked off as former president Abdulla Yameen’s administration’s pledged to develop regional airports across the Maldives.

Last month, the new administration sought bids to extend the same airport’s runway by another 1,000 meters and carry out reclamation of another 1.3 million cubic meters.

At the same time, the government is working with international experts to restore the hydrology of the Kulhudhuffushi mangroves after a controversial airport project destroyed a large part of the unique ecosystem.

Photos posted by locals last month showed hundreds of dead milk fish as the mangrove lake dried up during the dry season.

The annual drying up of the lake was worsened as predicted by experts. Access for seawater to enter the mangroves during swells was cut off when part of the island’s lagoon was reclaimed for the airport.

The current administration also plans to reclaim land on 17 islands and build a new airport project on Hoarafushi island in the northernmost atoll.