Last leatherback turtle stronghold under threat

Posted: 8 March 2006

A major conservation effort has got underway to help protect endangered leatherback turtles which nest in Gabon, West Africa. The region is thought to be the animals' last global stronghold, as the population of Pacific leatherbacks dwindle precariously.

Two leatherbacks nesting near each other on Yalimapo beach, in French Guiana. Photo: Matthew Godrey/Seaturtle.org
Two leatherbacks nesting near each other on Yalimapo beach, in French Guiana. Photo: Matthew Godrey/Seaturtle.org
Two leatherbacks nesting near each other on Yalimapo beach, in French Guiana.© Matthew Godrey/Seaturtle.org
The project, to tag and track the turtles, is led by Dr Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter. He hopes it will uncover their migratory secrets and provide the basis for efforts to safeguard them. After fitting them with satellite trackers the team are using the internet to follow their journeys, which are among the longest in the animal kingdom.

Dr Godley, who is also one of the Directors of SEATURTLE.org where the tracks are hosted online, said: "Pacific leatherbacks have been decimated by incidental capture at sea and over-exploitation so it's vital that we protect the Atlantic population.This project is crucial to our understanding of the geographical range of the leatherback as so little is currently known about their travels.

Leatherback hatchlings in El Gariton, Guatemala. Photo: Scott Handy/Seaturtle.org
Leatherback hatchlings in El Gariton, Guatemala. Photo: Scott Handy/Seaturtle.org
This little gathering of Leatherback hatchlings in El Gariton, Guatemala, is probably equal to the number of nesting females left in Guatemala.© Scott Handy/Seaturtle.org
"We think turtles from Gabon could be traveling as far afield as South America, Europe and even the Indian Ocean to feed on their jellyfish prey.Once we have detailed information our tracking work will feed directly into strategies for marine protected areas in Gabon and farther afield and more sustainable fisheries.

"We are just beginning to understand the importance of the leatherbacks of West Africa as a global stronghold but we need to know where they live to protect them."

Trawler carnage

It is estimated that more than 50,000 leatherback turtles are incidentally caught by fisherman trawling for other species each year. Of these, thousands are thought to die as a result. Approximately 1.4 billion hooks are cast into the world's oceans as part of industrial long-line fishing, with 37 per cent in the Atlantic. A major hotspot is found off West Africa, the focus of this study.

With fishing yields decreasing in European seas the European Union has struck a number of agreements with African nations to fish their waters. Few of these fishing concessions incorporate compulsory bycatch monitoring programmes.

Scientists from the University of Exeter's Cornwall Campus are working with a consortium of partners in Gabon (Aventures Sans Frontieres, Parcs Gabon and Wildlife Conservation Society) and the USA (Duke University, SEATURTLE.org) to try to solve the mystery of where the turtles' spend their time.

The work is supported by a range of UK and international funding bodies including the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) 2004/5 Shellshock Campaign.

An international campaign to conserve sea turtles in the Indian Ocean - South-East Asia region was launched this month in Bangkok, and a parallel campaign was launched in countries across the Pacific region with a ceremony in Apia, Samoa.

The leatherback tracking data is available online at www.seaturtle.org.