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

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid