News / Science & Technology

Pacific Leatherback Turtle Could Face Extinction in 20 Years

FILE - A leatherback turtle prepares to nest and lay her eggs in Playa Caletas on Costa Rica's northern Pacific coast, in this Aug. 3, 2004, handout photo from the Project for the Conservation of Marine Turtles (PRETOMA).
FILE - A leatherback turtle prepares to nest and lay her eggs in Playa Caletas on Costa Rica's northern Pacific coast, in this Aug. 3, 2004, handout photo from the Project for the Conservation of Marine Turtles (PRETOMA).
Reuters
The giant Pacific leatherback turtle, known for its arduous 6,000-mile (10,000 km) ocean trek from the U.S. West Coast to breeding grounds in Indonesia, could go extinct within 20 years as its population continues to plummet, scientists say.

"Sea turtles have been around about 100 million years and survived the extinction of the dinosaurs but are struggling to survive the impact of humans," said reproductive biologist Thane Wibbels of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), a member of a research team studying the fate of these reptiles.

The leatherback - the world's largest turtle - can grow to six feet (1.8 meters) long and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds (900 kg).

A study published this week in the Ecological Society of America's scientific journal Ecosphere estimates that only about 500 leatherbacks now nest at their last large nesting site in the Pacific, down from thousands previously. The study tracked the turtle's ongoing population decline since the 1980s.

"If the decline continues, leatherback turtles will become extinct in the Pacific Ocean within 20 years," Wibbels said.

The Pacific leatherback braves a transpacific journey that is one of the longest migrations in nature. Experts say its continued existence is imperiled by threats like climate change, plastic pollution, fishing methods, predation and human hunting.

Numbers Fall 78 Percent

In the past 27 years, the numbers of western Pacific leatherback turtles have dropped by 78 percent, making it critically endangered, said Ricardo Tapilatu, a turtle researcher at UAB and the State University of Papua in Indonesia. He has studied the turtles at their last remaining refuge, the remote Bird's Head Peninsula on New Guinea.

More than 75 percent of all western Pacific leatherback nesting occurs there, numbering 489 turtles in the last breeding season, the researchers said. The turtles forage across the Pacific as far away as the U.S. coast of California, Oregon, and Washington state.

The research team also included scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service and the World Wildlife Fund Indonesia.

The turtles can dive as deep as 4,000 feet (1.2 km). To survive the cold depths, the leatherback can control its temperature, staying warmer than surrounding waters. They feed on jellyfish, eating hundreds a day.

The leathery shell feels like tire tread and it is distinctively different from hard-shell sea turtles.

Their exact lifespan is unknown, but is believed to be up to 80 years. It is difficult to determine since males never return to the beaches, living their lives in the sea.

Of the four primary Pacific nesting places of the past century, the Malaysian population is extinct, and the Mexico and Central American populations have fallen 95 percent.

'Constant Danger'

The leatherback is the only sea turtle that lives in open ocean, negotiating numerous dangers along the way.

"They migrate 6,000 miles in seven months, and then back, going through the territorial waters of at least 20 countries. There is constant danger of being caught and killed," said Tapilatu, a native of New Guinea.

For example, fishermen's drift nets and long-lines can snag the air-breathing turtle, drowning it. Humans also introduced wild hogs and dogs to the remote beaches where they nest. The hogs are especially voracious predators of turtle eggs.

Near the nesting site, local fishermen still capture and slaughter leatherbacks to consume the meat. A local tribe has historically harvested about 100 turtles per year, as well as eggs.

On some beaches, as few as 20 percent of the eggs hatch due to increased beach temperatures, which could worsen with climate change, Tapilatu said. Sand temperature determines the gender of hatchlings, with higher temperatures favoring females.

Atlantic Leatherback in Better Shape

There is hope of restoring the population of the endangered reptiles, the researchers said. The Atlantic leatherback, which is genetically different from the Pacific turtles, has made a comeback through mutual country agreements to ban harvesting adults or eggs on beaches.

Tapilatu said he plans to return to New Guinea to help replicate that success story with the leatherback turtles struggling to survive in his Pacific home.

You May Like

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs