Leatherback Sea Turtles – The Panda Bears of the Ocean
While walking in the late afternoon down Manhame Beach there was a certain level of excitement that I could feel on the deserted sands. I was with turtle researcher Jess Williams of Marine Megafauna Foundation, and the two owners of Dunes de Dovela. It was past the incubation period for the nest and we were going to look through the recently hatched nest of a leatherback turtle, exhume the remains of the nest and determine the success rate of the hatchlings, with the potential to find and release baby stragglers waiting for the sand to cool in the breezy evening.
The month prior I had just seen my first leatherback turtle near Mafia Island, Tanzania. The leatherback is the largest marine reptile and most unique of all the sea turtles – not having scutes or hard shell, but a leathery skin over it’s carapace. In my eyes it is the panda bear of the sea, a beautiful symbol of the fragility of life, and necessity to conserve what we have left.
That evening, a Caterpillar backhoe couldn’t have done as thorough a job as a yellow lab puppy, and the four of us. After a few hours of digging however, we retreated at dusk with sand in our pants, and no sign of a nest.
Our hosts, Tomas and Alex of Dunes de Dovela, stayed up until 3 am, looking for any remaining baby turtles headed to the wavy shore. No hatched eggshells, or new hatchlings were found; they’d disappeared into the dune. This is the reality of researching sea turtles on the coast of Africa, but it goes further than that.
Of the 15 nests that were laid on Manhame, it has been determined by observers that half of them were poached before the nest could be properly documented. Perhaps another one or two have been poached since, and then at least two nests have washed away in the high spring tides of a rising ocean. That leaves 4 or 5 nests successfully hatching, and in that less than 1% of the hatchlings will make it to adulthood!
Poaching turtle nests and disturbing the species is illegal in Mozambique and enforced prosecution can incur a fine of between 2,000 – 100,000 mzn (Decree °12/2002 de 6 de Junho, Regulamento da Lei Do Florestas e Faunas Bravia). So if you see a poaching event happen, alert us with as much detailed information and photographic evidence as possible. We can bring in officials and alert the departments in charge of protecting species within Mozambique.
In other parts of the world turtles aren’t afforded as much protection and are legally being taken by the thousands. A paper recently published by Exeter University highlights that 42,000 turtles are taken legally in 42 different countries around the world.
But efforts are being made globally to help these creatures as well. A recent bi-annual journal has been initiated focusing around the conservation and research of turtles on the continent and island nations of Africa. In the inaugural issue of the African Sea Turtle Newsletter, Mozambique is mentioned in two separate research papers. One story highlighting Ponto D’Ouro’s satellite tagged turtles, in the south (p. 48), and the other about a unique nesting event on Vamizi Island, way in the north (p.52).
We’re not giving up: the hatching season is between December and April, so we’ll be excavating more hatched nests and staying vigilant for poaching incidents. Turtles need all the help they can get. If you can help by showing them some support through Jess’s work at Marine Megafauna Foundation, and write us incident reports at Eyes on the Horizon. Or you can become a dedicated beach observer like our supporters at Dunes de Dovela.
1) University of Exeter. “Legal harvest of marine turtles tops 42,000 each year.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 February 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140220193512.htm>.