Stick Your Neck Out for Sea Turtles

May 21, 2015

May is World Turtle Month with May 23rd designated as World Turtle Day.  To find out more about sea turtles and efforts to protect them, we turned to The Nature Conservancy, a leader in sea turtle conservation work. What we found out was inspiring and there are lots of ways for you to learn more and to get involved.

The critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle in Palau. Photo credit: © Dr. Steve Genkins

In the Coral Triangle, there’s a place where a chain of nearly 1,000 islands dots the sea. It’s a wondrous place, home to so many different species that it’s considered a “biodiversity hotspot.” One of those species is also one of the world’s most threatened sea turtles: the hawksbill.

For the hawksbill sea turtle, a small cluster of those islands – the Arnavons – is the site of an unlikely alliance between turtle hunters and conservationists. These islands are home to the largest hawksbill turtle rookery in the South Pacific, but they also have a long and complicated past that includes over 150 years of hunting sea turtles for their shells and meat. Now hunters and scientists are working together to protect turtles, with inspiring results.

Watch this video of sea turtle babies taking their first steps.

A recent scientific study shows that local hawksbill turtle populations have doubled in the past 20 years, ever since The Nature Conservancy, local communities, and the islands’ government partnered to save these critically endangered sea turtles.  This is a 200% increase from record lows in the 1990s when the turtles had been hunted to the brink of extinction. It’s also the only example of such a recovery in the region.

Conservation Officers affix metal tags to a hawksbill turtle that’s just nested on Kerehikapa Island. The permnanent tags offer a means of monitoring individual turtles. Photo: © Djuna Ivereigh

Building on the work in the Arnavons, The Nature Conservancy works with local communities and governments to protect sea turtles and other important marine life across the Coral Triangle by establishing networks of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that support conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Recognizing that MPAs alone are not enough to address this critical issue, they’re also developing new strategies to protect and patrol turtle nesting beaches, conserve their habitats both in the water and on land and help communities create environmentally friendly alternatives to turtle hunting, such as ecotourism and sustainable fisheries.

This is a conservation success story, but there is still so much to do. Scientists estimate that the global hawksbill population has declined by 80 percent over the last century, and only 1 out of every 1,000 hawksbill hatchlings born will ever grow to maturity. Sea turtles also continue to face many threats, like rising seas that inundate turtle nests, poaching and illegal trade and destruction of nesting beaches by commercial logging and mining operations.

A baby hawksbill turtle moves from nest to sea. Photo Credit: © Bridget Besaw

Despite these dangers, the work in the Arnavons is a promising sign that conservation efforts can have a dramatic impact on turtle survival.

You can help by supporting The Nature Conservancy’s work to protect the Coral Triangle and hawksbills. Here’s how:

Photo credits: All photos and video provided by The Nature Conservancy
Hawskbill Sea Turtle © Dr. Steven Genkins
Conservation Officers affix metal tags to a hawksbill turtle © Djuna Ivereigh
A baby hawksbill turtle moves from nest to sea. © Bridget Besaw

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