There are 7 species of sea turtles in the world and all of them are listed on the IUCN’s endangered list. Five of these species occur in South African waters. Six of these occur in American waters.
Nature has its own set of rules, and hatchlings are the most vulnerable when they first emerge from their nests, and scramble for the ocean. Ghost crabs scurry along to snack on them, sea birds swoop down for a quick meal. On continents such as the United States, raccoons pose a huge threat to nests. They can easily destroy a nest of 70 eggs in one sitting. In Australia red foxes are causing equal degrees of destruction. Snakes, possums, rats, skunks and other mammals will feast on the eggs. Once in the ocean the sharks and other large fish add to their fight for survival. Adult turtles are sometimes eaten by killer whales.
Man poses a threat equal to that of nature. Some will argue that man is a greater threat. They hunt the turtles for their meat and eggs. When looking at a mature one ton Leatherback turtle, it is understandable how they might be considered a good source of protein for a village. New global legislation has limited hunting, but there are many countries that do not enforce these rules. In China people believe that eating turtle heads will relieve labor pains. Poaching is rife in Malaysia and Vietnam because it is a lucrative export to China.
In Mexico, Malaysia and Kenya (to name but a few), turtle eggs are still widely eaten. The local people believe it is a powerful aphrodisiac. It is also believed to promote longevity and good health. In countries such as Malaysia, turtle nest have been poached so severely that authorities such as the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, fear a total wipe out of turtle populations in this region.
Turtles are poached for their bones and shells too. These are sold to artisans who then fashion them into jewelry, belt buckles, eyeglass frames, and hair and handbag accessories. The skin is used to make leather goods. The Chinese will crush the bone and shells into a powder to sell in Chinese medicine shops. The powder is consumed for the same reason as the eggs. It is also believed to promote health and longevity.
Fishing nets are potential death traps for turtles. The turtles will often get caught and entangled in longlines and gillnets. They can’t easily free themselves, and eventually drown because they can’t come to the surface for air.
Ocean pollution is just another threat to the turtle populations. A common item on the turtle menu is jellyfish. They will often mistake plastic bags or bottles for a meal. Eating the plastic causes a multitude of health risks for the turtle, from intestinal blockage, ulcerations to suffocation, to name but a few. To add insult to injury, the toxic components of plastic will proliferate through the turtle’s blood stream and tissues, causing reproductive problems and thinning of eggshells.
As developers build along the coast, they also disturb nesting areas. Natural lighting is a problem for little hatchlings, because as they hatch they will look for the reflection of the moon off the water to guide their way to the ocean. When light from buildings or streets interfere with this natural event, it causes confusion, and hatchlings might navigate away from the water toward the artificial light.
The South African conservation authorities have been concerned with turtle population decline for some time. They first set up a turtle monitoring program in 1963/4, making it the longest running turtle conservation effort in the world.
In Kenya the wildlife authorities realized that they would need to work with local people. If a fisherman catches a turtle in his net, he is asked to bring it ashore, instead of killing it for its meat. He is asked to alert the wildlife volunteers. The volunteers will come down to the beach, measure and tag the turtle and then release it. The fisherman is paid for his efforts which will help him pay for repairs to his net. Often turtles will destroy a section of the net when they get entangled. The locals are also asked to call the authorities if they find a nest on the beach. The nest is then cordoned off and the person who found it is compensated.
A person who finds a nest could be paid up to US $12.50. He is then asked to please look out for the nest. This becomes an investment for him, because for every egg that hatches he is paid the equivalent of 50c. For a villager or fisherman this is a lot of money. They may only average a monthly income of US $75. A nest of hatchlings could pay them up to half of that. To further their enthusiasm, they are invited to watch as the Kenya Wildlife Service staff release the hatchlings into the water.
- The Loggerhead turtle only reaches sexual maturity between 17 and 30 years of age in South African waters. In Southeastern United States, and Australian regions they will only start nesting at about 28 to 33 years.
- A Loggerhead hatchling will weigh about 20g (0.7 oz) compared to an adult that can weigh up to 250 kg (550 lbs).
- A Leatherback hatchling will weigh about 40g (1.8 oz) compared to an adult that can weigh up to a ton (2,204 lbs)!
- Once a turtle has matured it will typically return to the beach where it hatched, to nest, therefore completing a cycle.
- Eggs will incubate for 60 to 70 days. It is in this time that the sex of the turtle is determined. If the temperature of the sand is about 28 ͦ C (82 ͦ F) the turtle will be born female, below this and you have a little male emerging.
It is perhaps the turtle’s own longevity that has created the myth that its parts can impart the same fortune to man. Perhaps it is the fact that they have existed on earth for 150 million years. It is more likely man’s vanity and lack of good judgment that is contributing to their decline.
Judging by the list of conservation unions and agencies across the world it is clear that the plight of the turtle is at least recognized. The fight to preserve them is constant and modern education is key to their survival. It is time that we all recognize our impact on nature. Let us be the generation to leave a legacy of conservation not destruction.
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Photography by Tyrone Crossman Photography
Author: Principle writer – Celeste Wilson
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