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

Video Obama to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Ebola Fight

At Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President says US will take leadership role for a global response to deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa More

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

Muslims in Kunming say that they condemn the violence, it is not a reflection of the true beliefs of their faith More

Humanitarian Aid, Equipment Blocked in Cameroon

Move is seen as a developing supply crisis in West Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid