A Talk on the Wild Side.
A leatherback sea turtle lies on the beach. Photo by USFWS
How Americans Like You Have Helped Make This Project Possible
Projects such as this one would not be possible without the funding generated from proceeds of sales of the “Save Vanishing Species Stamp,” also known as the “Tiger Stamp.” Through programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tiger Stamps have helped fund projects that benefit tigers, sea turtles, great apes, rhinos and elephants in 35 countries. Since 2011, purchases of stamps have generated more than $4.6 million in funding for international conservation projects. Learn more and purchase Tiger Stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. Thank you for your support!
If you have ever been to the oceanfront, you have likely seen a wide variety of animals along the beach. Flying above your head there were probably different kinds of seabirds. Scuttling along the ground there were likely crabs, and in the distance, you might have seen dolphin fins poking through the waves. What you probably wouldn’t expect would be a five-foot long, 500-pound sea turtle slowly crawling into the ocean waves. But, at the right time and place, you might see one.
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest species of seven found throughout the world. Although leatherbacks and other sea turtles spend a majority of their time at sea, female leatherbacks come ashore searching for sandy, undisturbed beaches during nesting season.
Western Africa in particular is the location of many important nesting and feeding sites for the leatherback, including Mani Beach in Cote d'Ivoire. Although the female leatherbacks lay many eggs along Mani Beach, few survive to adulthood. Human stressors, such as poaching for the turtle’s eggs or meat and accidental capture by fishermen, have tipped the carefully balanced scale of leatherback populations toward decline in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Part of the problem is also that enforcement measures which protect these majestic giants are either scarce or do not exist.
Baby leatherbacks head to the ocean. Photo by Sebastian Troeng, Conservation International
The Leatherback Population Begins its Path to Recovery
Noticing the lack of official law enforcement, the non-government organization, Conservation des Especes Marines (CEM), with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stepped up to the challenge of combating leatherback and other sea turtle population decline in Cote d'Ivoire.
CEM began this effort by establishing the “Brigade Anti-Braconnage,” or Anti-poaching Brigade. Led by project officer DAH Alexandre and assisted by the Naval Police, the brigade consisted of volunteers selected and trained to act as patrols for Mani Beach. Split into teams of two or more people, the recruits patrolled the beach during sea turtle nesting season. Between the months of September and March, the patrols diligently paced the 18.6 miles of Mani Beach’s sandy shores for more than 400 hours a week.
Patrols also relocated sea turtle nests at risk of harm from four-wheeled vehicles and erased sea turtle tracks to discourage poachers. Relocated sea turtles were placed into one of two nesting hatcheries, which were purposefully built to enhance the project’s surveillance of the turtle populations. While on duty, the patrols tracked and recorded sea turtle nests and other indicators of sea turtle presence. In addition to the patrols, CEM worked with local fishermen to decrease sea turtle bycatch.
A patrol rescues a leatherback at Asseoufoue Beach. Photo by CEM
Before CEM’s efforts, nearly all sea turtle nests on Mani Beach were poached and many turtles were slaughtered. Throughout the duration of the project, the number of turtles killed dropped and the various sea turtle populations found near the beach began to grow. In the 2010-2011 nesting season, reports indicated that there were only about 10 leatherback nests on Mani Beach. Yet during the 2015-2016 nesting season, the number of leatherback nests increased to about 100. Other sea turtles, such as the olive ridley, also had drastic population increases, with the number of olive ridley nests increasing from about 100 nests in 2010-2011 to just under 500 nests in 2015-2016.
Not only did CEM’s efforts result in increased sea turtle populations in the area, but they also helped raise public support for sea turtle protections. Ultimately, the Department for Wildlife Protection helped with the passage of a local law protecting sea turtle populations. Validated by village chiefs, the law forbids the sale of sea turtle meat or eggs in local markets and establishes a list of punishments for violations. Since the passage of this law, several poachers have faced penalties.
However, protections do not exist for all sea turtle populations in Cote d'Ivoire. Adjacent beaches and villages continue to engage in harmful fishing practices and the levels of poaching in these areas remains high. Therefore, CEM continues to work on conserving the endangered sea turtles by refining existing conservation methods and incorporating new ones, such as utilizing the benefits of ecotourism. Through the work of vigilant organizations such as CEM, we will continue to see leatherbacks today and tomorrow. Similarly, through Tiger Stamp funds, we will continue to see successes like this for sea turtles in other areas, too!
By Deborah Kornblut, an intern with the Service’s International Affairs Program