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Saving a Pacific ambassador from extinction

  • Nani Afrida

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, March 5 2013 | 01:05 pm
Saving a Pacific ambassador from extinction

At risk: A leatherback turtle sits on a beach in West Papua in this undated photo. Courtesy of Daniel Tadu

Turtles are cute but scared animals.

Hindus believe the world is supported by four of them, while others believe turtles are a symbol of long life and peace.

In several areas of Indonesia, sea turtles are very important for ceremonies. On the Kei islands in Maluku, people hunt sea turtles for ceremonies and for food.

In other parts of Indonesia, turtle meat remains a delicacy believed to improve health, beauty and sexuality. In Bali, for instance, people consume turtle meat. The high demand for the meat on the island has caused fishermen to seek out the creatures as far as Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

In fact, Indonesia has banned the trade and consumption of sea turtles, which are considered endangered animals. But fishermen and traders still compete to net more turtles as prices skyrocket.

“If you are lucky you can get the dish in Bali and even in Jakarta at a high price. Like it or not, some people still consume turtles,” Tri, whose hobby is traveling, told The Jakarta Post recently.

Indonesia has six species of sea turtles on the brink of extinction: green turtles (Chelonia mydas), loggerheads (Carreta carreta), hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive’s ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea) and leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea).

The leatherback is the largest of all the sea turtles, and is easily differentiated from other sea turtle species because of its lack of a hard shell — its carapace is covered with thick skin and oily flesh.

Homeward bound: Leatherback turtles lay their eggs along warm sandy beaches. After they hatch, the baby turtles make for the sea. Courtesy of Ricardo TapiatuHomeward bound: Leatherback turtles lay their eggs along warm sandy beaches. After they hatch, the baby turtles make for the sea. Courtesy of Ricardo Tapiatu

The leatherback turtle can grow up to 1.8 meters long and weigh as much as 900 kilograms. They are able to dive to depths of nearly 1,200 meters and can make 9,500 kilometers trans-Pacific migrations from Indonesia to the US Pacific coast, and then back again.  

It was reported that several areas like the eastern Pacific (Mexico and Costa Rica) and Malaysia shelter leatherbacks. Unfortunately, the population has collapsed. Now, the last stronghold for leatherback nesting in the Pacific is the Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua.

Leatherbacks lay their eggs along 20 kilometers of beach at Jamursba Medi and Warmon in West Papua. Aside from leatherbacks, other sea turtles like the olive’s ridley, green and hawksbill also lay their eggs beneath the sand.

Indonesia should be proud to be a the last sanctuary of these majestic animals, but recent research shows there was a 78.3 percent decline in leatherback turtle nests over a 27-year period in West Papua.

The research was performed by an international team comprising scientists from the University of Papua (UNIPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Marine Fisheries Service, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia. The research was published in the scientific journal Ecosphere on Feb. 25.

The study used year-round surveys of leatherback turtle nesting areas since 2005 and is the most extensive research on the species to date.

According to the research, leatherback nests have fallen from a peak of 14,455 in 1984 to a low of 1,596 in 2011 at Jamursba Medi Beach in West Papua. Currently, less than 500 leatherbacks are nesting annually there.

“My field crew and I have been documenting the decline of leatherbacks in West Papua. The Pacific leatherback may be headed to extinction if the current declining trend is not reversed through Indonesian and international efforts,” Ricardo Tapilatu, one of the researchers, told the Post.

Tapilatu, a native of western Papua, has studied leatherback turtles and worked on their conservation since 2004. He has strived over the years to educate locals and limit the harvesting of adult turtles and their eggs.

Tapilatu said leatherbacks are part of Indonesia’s heritage as they have been nesting in the archipelago for thousands
of years.

“We were optimistic for this population when year-round nesting was discovered in Warmon, but nesting on that beach appears to be declining at a similar rate as Jamursba Medi,” he said.

The researchers believe if the decline continues, within 20 years it would be difficult, if not impossible, for leatherbacks to avoid extinction.

Professor Wibbles from UAB stated in the report that the number of turtles would be so dramatically reduced because the species could not make a comeback.

“The leatherback is one of the most intriguing animals in nature, and we are watching it decline drastically right in front of our eyes,” Wibbles, who is member of the research team, has studied marine turtles since 1980, said.

The team believes proper beach management can help to reduce the annual decline of leatherback nests. However, protection of leatherbacks in waters throughout the Pacific is a prerequisite for their survival and recovery

Surf’s up: Leatherback turtle babies head for the water in West Papua. Surf’s up: Leatherback turtle babies head for the water in West Papua.

Previous research done by WWF found that fishermen illegally caught and sold sea turtles for meat to China. However, in 2001, China prohibited the import of sea turtle meat from Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia.

But fishermen have a new strategy to obtain sea turtles. Before they used fishing nets, but now they dive to catch the creatures.

Indonesia has several conservation areas for sea turtles such as Banyak Island in Aceh, Derawan Island in East
Kalimantan, the Kei islands in Maluku and Serangan Island. However, the number of turtles continues to plummet.

As for leatherback sea turtles in West Papua, researcher Peter Datton said the area was now ground zero.

“The leatherbacks have acted as international ambassadors and led us to join with many nations and communities on both sides of the Pacific in a concerted effort to conserve this endangered species,” he said in the report.


Five major problems for leatherback turtles:

• Beach predators such as pigs and dogs that were introduced to the island and eat turtle eggs
• Rising sand temperatures kill eggs or prevent the production of male hatchlings
• Being caught by fishermen during migrations
• Harvesting of adults and eggs for food by islanders
• Logging and road development along the coastal areas of the Bird’s Head Peninsula


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