Global Warming Forces Innovative Sea Turtle Protection

Dave Sherwood in Playa Junquillal, Costa Rica
for National Geographic News
July 22, 2008

When nearly 900 endangered leatherback sea turtles emerged from the sand on this remote Pacific beach this spring, scientists rejoiced.

The near record hatch, up from just a handful the year before, signaled progress.

Absent from the headlines, however, was the fact the turtles were born in a fenced, shaded hatchery to protect them from predators and scorching sun.

Scientists here and elsewhere are increasingly finding they have no choice but to intervene as a warming Earth, changing ocean conditions, and coastal development threaten to outpace the sea turtles' ability to adapt.

"These are no longer natural problems," said Carlos Drews, who leads the marine turtle program for the World Wildlife Fund in Latin America. "We can't expect the turtles to adjust."

This realization has sparked a growing discussion among conservationists on how to help species cope with climate change.

"It's an experiment we've been forced into, and one we hadn't planned for," said Michael Coyne, director of SeaTurtle.org and chairperson of the International Sea Turtle Society.

Highly Endangered Long-lived animals, leatherback sea turtles can reach 6.5 feet (2 meters) in length and weigh up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms).

Found in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, the animals are highly endangered.

The Pacific population, for example, has declined to an estimated 5,000 animals, a 95 percent drop since 1980. Coastal development, poaching, and fishing bycatch are the main culprits.

(Related story: Rare Leatherback Turtles Gain Protection in Costa Rica [March 2008])

With climate change bringing additional burdens, turtles and their habitat must be carefully monitored, Coyne says.

Continued on Next Page >>


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