Small Steps Key to Saving Giant Turtles: Expert

KUALA LUMPUR ~ Small and inexpensive steps could go a long way towards rescuing the Western Pacific’s dwindling population of giant sea turtles, an expert has said.

Specialist Peter Dutton urged authorities to do more to preserve the state of leatherback turtles’ nesting beaches to ensure eggs are hatched.

“The main issue here is there are eggs that are being laid but for some reason, they are not hatching,” said Dutton, leader of the marine turtle research program at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“But there are some relatively cheap things that can be done to get the leatherbacks back on the road to growing their population,” he said.

“The population recovers very rapidly in the period of 25 to 30 years,” Dutton said in a telephone interview from Malaysia’s eastern Terengganu state, where NOAA was holding a four-day conference to develop a long-term conservation plan for leatherbacks in the region.

Leatherbacks were once a star attraction in Terengganu, where they frequently nested. None have been sighted in the last few years and overfishing, poaching and pollution have been blamed for killing them.

Leatherbacks are the world’s largest turtles and have been around for the past 75 million years, going through cycles of near-extinction and re-colonization.

According to data from the agencies that organized the meeting, the number of nesting leatherback turtles in the Western Pacific region has plummeted to 5,000 from a once-thriving population of 91,000 in the 1980s.

Dutton said some of the biggest threats could be easily avoided, for example by blocking the use of fishing nets at nesting areas because they could strangle females coming ashore to nest and prevent baby turtles from safely leaving.

Dutton said the focus was now on protecting female turtles and nesting beaches in Indonesia’s Papua, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Malaysia.

Particularly in Indonesia’s Papua, “the leatherback population has not collapsed,” which leaves time for conservation efforts, he said.

About 1,000 female leatherbacks nest annually in Papua, laying up to 9,000 eggs and making it “biologically viable” to grow the population, he said.

“The challenge here is to protect and increase hatchlings,” he added.

But Dutton said a commitment by governments and other agencies to funding was vital for ensuring the success of conservation projects.

To date, funding has largely been dependent on the US or private donations.

Malaysian scientists have said cloning leatherbacks could be a method of saving them, according to local press reports.

Dutton rejected a suggestion by Malaysian scientists that the turtles could be cloned.

“Instead of cloning, Malaysia could take the lead in studying methods to ensure eggs that are laid produce hatchlings,” he said.

“I hope the Malaysian government will look at some of the more immediately solvable issues and take the lead in developing new hatchery techniques.”

The conference ends on Friday, when a long-term plan aimed at securing reliable funding from governments and other agencies was expected to be unveiled.

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