Puerto Rico has done the right thing and just passed a new law protecting a major nesting site for highly endangered leatherback turtles. The Northeast Ecological Corridor occupies an area of some 14 square kilometers (5.4 square miles) on pristine beaches on the island’s coast and will now be, in the words of Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, “protected forever.”
The new law ends a 15-year-fight between conservationists and developers, who have been eager to turn the site into golf courses, hotels and luxury houses, under the pretext that such would create jobs and boost the local economy. Some 860 species of plants will also be protected and the area will likely become a great site for eco-tourism. Padilla’s predecessor, Luis Fortuno, had set in motion efforts to preserve the Northeast Ecological Corridor for wildlife, a reversal of his earlier decision to revoke the area’s protected status.
Leatherbacks, the largest of all living turtles and the largest living reptiles, are named for their somewhat flexible, rubbery shells. They can grow up to seven feet long and weigh more than 2,000 pounds but start their lives as tiny hatchlings weighing just around 2 ounces. After mating at sea, females come ashore to lay some 100 eggs. After 60-65 days, the hatchlings (with characteristic white striping on the ridges of their backs and the edges of their flippers) emerge and make their way back to the water.
Watching the hatchlings crawl from their sandy nests into the sea has attracted many tourists to tropical areas. Last July, in an incident that made all too clear why leatherback turtles need protection, some 20,000 baby turtles were crushed by bulldozers in Trinidad before the eyes of horrified tourists.
Since the 1980s, worldwide populations of leatherbacks has declined by as much as 95 percent due to commercial fishing, poaching of their eggs (believed to be an aphrodisiac in some cultures), boat strikes and changing conditions in the ocean. Jellyfish is a favorite food of leatherbacks and many have mistaken plastic debris for it, as revealed by finding plastic (almost 11 pounds in some cases) in their stomachs.
Worldwide Protection for Leatherback Turtles Varies
One of the most migratory of sea animals, leatherbacks tagged in French Guiana have turned up as far north as Newfoundland. They are listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN‘s Red List but protection for them varies widely around the world. Since January of 2012, nearly 42,000 square miles of ocean along the U.S.’s West Coast has been designated as critical habitat for the Pacific leatherback turtle.
Leatherbacks have also been designated as “vulnerable” under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and as “endangered” under Queensland’s Nature Conservation Act of 2006.
The allure of eco-tourism has led to many Caribbean countries stepping up with conservation efforts. Some include the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network and a hatchery club on Parismina, an isolated sandbar on the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica that is a leatherback turtle nesting ground. In Central Africa, the government of Gabon has created Mayumba National Park to protect the 30,000 turtles that arrive at each beach every year.
In the Pacific Ocean, Malaysia’s beaches once hosted the largest nesting population in the world. But human activity — people collecting the turtles’ eggs for consumption — has almost completely wiped them out. While some 6,000 to 10,000 nests were counted in the northern state of Terengganu in the late 1960s, there were only 800 in 1984 and (even after a government-imposed ban on collecting the eggs), a mere five in 2006. In 2007, the Malaysian government proposed a $9 million plan to clone leatherbacks that has been widely seen as likely to fail as scientists have yet to clone a reptile.
Puerto Rico’s conservation efforts on behalf of the leatherback turtle have occurred none too soon. In February, an international team of researchers reported a 78 percent decline in the number of leatherback turtles in their last stronghold in the Pacific, a beach in Papua Barat in Indonesia. The turtles could become extinct there in the next 20 years. While there were 14,455 nests in 1984, there were only 1,532 in 2011.
As one of the researchers, Thane Wibbels,says, “The leatherback is one of the most intriguing animals in nature, and we are watching it head towards extinction in front of our eyes.” Preserving the turtles’ habitat, and therefore their existence, is something the world must make a concerted effort to do.
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