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NATURE

Costa Rican sea turtles battle extinction

Roughly one in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings make it to adulthood   

February 10, 1999
Web posted at: 12:00 PM EST




Decades of turtle conservation efforts in Costa Rica are paying off, experts say, more than doubling the number of annual nests being found on the beach over the last 20 years. On the downside, poaching pressure at the young turtles' feeding grounds keeps them on the precipice of extinction.

Scientists from the University of Florida and the National Marine Fisheries Service analyzed decades of green turtle nesting data collected by the Caribbean Conservation Corporation at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Results showed that the number of nests found on the 22-mile-long beach steadily increased from 1971 through 1996 from fewer than 20,000 to more than 50,000.

The turtles have already fought one round against extinction and won. In the 1960s, nearly every female turtle arriving to nest in Tortuguero became turtle soup. Tortuguero is the site of the largest remaining nesting population of endangered green turtles in the Western Hemisphere.

Established in 1959 to study and protect Caribbean green turtles, the CCC worked with the Costa Rican government, and in 1970, Tortuguero National Park was established, a move that strictly limited the number of turtles that could be taken.

The center also worked with the local villagers to convince them that a live turtle was more valuable to them than a dead one. Today, some 50,000 tourists annually pay handsome fees to watch sea turtles nest on Tortuguero Beach and visit the rain forests of the park.

Although encouraged by the upward trend in sea turtle nesting at Tortuguero, scientists are not bringing out the band yet.

"This analysis should not be interpreted to mean that green turtles are no longer endangered. For instance, we know that there is considerable hunting pressure on the young turtles at their feeding grounds in Nicaragua," said Sebastian Tro‘ng, CCC research coordinator. "Given that green turtles need 25 or more years to reach sexual maturity, we won't see the impact of that hunting on the nesting population for years or even decades."

In May 1998, the presidents of Costa Rica and Panama signed an agreement to jointly manage the Caribbean sea turtles that migrate between the two nations. Nicaragua is expected to sign the agreement.

Inter-governmental cooperation is essential to the Tortuguero sea turtles. Drowning in shrimp trawls, being eaten for dinner, exposure to pollution and loss of nesting habitat to coastal development continue to threaten them.

"With green turtles, we know that the current estimated numbers of green turtles are just one-tenth of what they were before Europeans came to the New World. The fact that their numbers appear to be increasing is definitely encouraging, but they are far from being fully recovered," said David Godfrey, CCC executive director.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved


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