Scientists have found the world’s largest population of nesting leatherback sea turtles. On the beaches of Gabon in West Africa land and air surveys estimated the small country’s leatherback population to be between 15,730 and 41,373 individual females. The findings are published in Biological Conservation.
“We knew that Gabon was an important nesting site for leatherback turtles but until now had little idea of the size of the population or its global ranking. We are now focusing our efforts on working with local agencies to coordinate conservation efforts to ensure this population is protected against the threats from illegal fisheries, nest poaching, pollution and habitat disturbance, and climate change,” said lead author on the paper, Dr Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter.
The leatherback sea turtle. Photo by: J.G. Collomb.
Leatherback sea turtles are currently considered critically endangered by the IUCN, however these new numbers may cause marine biologists to reconsider that ranking. Global estimates of leatherback turtles have been placed at up to 43,000 nesting females, but the numbers in Gabon may raise that estimation.
Scientists spent three nesting seasons during 2002-2007 carrying out aerial surveys of Gabon’s coastline, which stretches for 372 miles (600 kilometers). It was the first comprehensive look at Gabon’s leatherback population, which was only first documented in 1984.
The study found that 79 percent of nesting leatherbacks are already in National Parks or other protected areas.
“These findings show the critical importance of protected areas to maintain populations of sea turtles. Gabon should be commended for creating a network of National Parks in 2002 that have provided a sanctuary for this endangered species as well as other rare wildlife,” Dr Angela Formia of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a co-author of the paper, said.
WCS and the University of Exeter worked together to conduct the survey.