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Saving Sri Lanka's sea turtles

By CNN's Hugh Riminton

Many species of marine turtles are endangered.
• Aid groups: How to help
• Gallery: Stories of survival
• Flash: How tsunamis form
• Special report: After the tsunami
Sri Lanka

BENTOTA, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- The tsunami ended so many human lives, the environmental impact has taken second place.

In Sri Lanka, though, there are fears entire species can be wiped out. At particular risk are sea turtles.

Amid the rubble lies the remains of one of the world's last hopes for five endangered species of marine turtle.

"The waves, they're coming and they wash all the hatcheries ... all destroyed," says Kithsiri Kannangari of the Bentota Sea Turtles Project.

For 25 years, Kannangari has fought to preserve Sri Lanka's dwindling turtle populations.

The waves killed thousands of baby turtles that were to have been released into the sea the very day the tsunami struck.

"It was more than 20,000 turtle hatchlings ready to go," says Kannangari. Of those, only 400 were saved.

It is effectively a wipeout. Even in ideal conditions, only one hatchling in a thousand survives to adulthood in the wild.

All but one of his adult turtles were also swept away -- "a green turtle about 3 years old, very beautiful," says Kannangari.

The few that have been recovered were found up to 5 kilometers away washed into a local river system. For the moment, he says, this has made the turtles even more endangered.

"The tsunami did a lot of problems for endangered species to protect ... to survive," he says.

Of his three green turtles, two were rescued. Of his Oliver Ridley species, only one of three. Of the hawksbill, he lost nine of 11. His single loggerhead turtle was found, but its shell was badly damaged.

Meanwhile, a handful of the rescued eggs have hatched.

Kannangari is trying to rebuild, but with the sudden death of tourism his revenue base has disappeared.

His more immediate concern, though, are his hawksbill turtles -- internatioinally listed as critically endangered.

"See this beautiful shell? People kill them, especially in the Maldives, there's no protection," he says.

Nearly two weeks after the tsunami, another hawksbill is brought in. "Now we have three, we have three," he says.

Its shell appears affected by freshwater immersion in a nearby stream, and it seems stressed -- showing no interest in food. But Kannangari is confident he can keep it alive.

And depleted as his stocks are, the work goes on. There are so few survivors, but Kannangari says it's time for them to go off to sea.

"Just put them down in the sand ... Here comes the water."

It's not the thousand hatchlings Kannangari had dreamt of, but these are the first ones since the tsunami. Much is now riding on their survival.

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