Sea turtles are among the most threatened of the countless marine life forms that are being pushed to the brink as a result of human impact on their environment. The conservation efforts of Fauna & Flora and our partners are contributing both directly and indirectly to the recovery of five of the world’s seven sea turtle species.
Sea turtle facts
Before we delve into the detail, here’s a handy guide to turtle identification for those eager to know the difference between a leatherback and a loggerhead.
The leatherback is by far the largest of all sea turtles, with the biggest individuals exceeding two metres in length and weighing well over half a tonne. It is the only sea turtle that lacks a bony shell; instead, its ridged carapace is covered with leathery skin, hence the evocative name. A leatherback’s mouth lacks teeth but they have backward-pointing spines in their throats to help them retain and swallow their slippery jellyfish prey. The Pacific leatherback is critically endangered, with an estimated 2,300 adult females left in the wild. Credit: Doug Perrine/NaturePL
The largest of the hard-shelled turtles, loggerheads are distinguished by their relatively huge heads, which help accommodate the powerful jaw muscles needed to crush the armoured prey that make up most of their diet, including clams and sea urchins. They are the most commonly seen Mediterranean turtle, but numbers are declining, not least because tourism development is obliterating crucial nest sites. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
Green turtles have a rounded head and domed carapace, but are not necessarily green; the unpalatable truth is that their name derives from the green-coloured fat layer under their shell that was too often turned into turtle soup, one of the many reasons why this species is endangered. Scientists believe that this colour stems from the turtle’s exclusively vegetarian diet of seagrass, algae and other plants. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
Olive ridley turtle
The most abundant of the world’s sea turtles, the olive ridley is nevertheless vulnerable to extinction. Identified by its relatively small size (it measures less than 80 centimetres) and rounded, olive-green shell, this species is renowned for the mass-nesting events – known as arribada – during which thousands of olive ridley turtles come ashore simultaneously to lay eggs on the same beach. Credit: Evan Bowen-Jones
The hawksbill turtle owes its name to the narrow, pointed beak that enables it to reach into narrow crevices on a coral reef in order to extract the sponges on which it feeds almost exclusively. The exquisitely beautiful, mottled shell of this critically endangered species is a double-edged sword; so-called ‘tortoiseshell’ jewellery and other souvenirs illegally sold in Central America and Southeast Asia are often made from the shell of hawksbills. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
How Fauna & Flora is helping to safeguard sea turtles
Here’s a snapshot of how Fauna & Flora and partners are rising to the chelonid challenge at our various project sites around the world.
Heydi Salazar, Fauna & Flora’s biological monitoring specialist in Nicaragua, with olive ridley turtle hatchlings. Credit: Heydi Salazar/Fauna & Flora
Since the start of Fauna & Flora’s work to protect the critically endangered hawksbill turtle over a decade ago, over 2,500 nests have been protected from poaching and around 230,000 hatchlings have been released to the sea. Over this period, 367 different female turtles have been identified and tagged on these nesting beaches. Over the past two decades, Fauna & Flora’s frontline work at leatherback nesting beaches has resulted in the protection of more than 530 leatherback nests and the release of well over 9,000 leatherback hatchlings to the sea. In tandem with our monitoring and patrol activities, a recent behaviour change initiative is aiming to reduce consumer demand for eggs and other turtle products.
Nicaragua’s beaches provide nesting sites for thousands of hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback and green turtles. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora
Nesting hawksbill turtles have increased by approximately fourfold in the project area since 1995, at least partly attributable to reduced egg predation by invasive black rats, which have been eradicated from several offshore islands as part of Fauna & Flora’s wider conservation work. Hawksbills have become a common sight in the surrounding waters, while the much rarer leatherback also nests on the project islands.
Fauna & Flora is working with partners and coastal communities in three protected areas within the globally important Mesoamerican Reef that support an impressive array of species, including the hawksbill turtle. Thanks to beach patrols on Cayos Cochinos, poaching of turtle eggs has reduced dramatically during the lifetime of the project. We have also documented dozens of instances of turtles that were accidentally caught in fishing gear being released, a strong indication that engagement of fishers is having a positive impact.
Hawksbill turtle hatchlings make their way to the ocean. Credit: Alam Ramirez/Fauna & Flora
Before work was suspended following the latest coup, behaviour change initiatives and improved law enforcement facilitated by Fauna & Flora’s ridge to reef conservation work had begun to benefit marine species including sea turtles. In 2021, over 100 turtle nests were recorded in four separate locations, and the green turtle eggs brought into protective custody at the turtle hatchery had an 83% hatching success rate.
Last year, in close collaboration with the Indonesian government, Fauna & Flora and our local NGO partners launched a community-led hatchling adoption and release initiative on the island of Waigeo, a haven of marine and terrestrial biodiversity in West Papua where all five of Fauna & Flora’s target turtle species – leatherback, hawksbill, green, loggerhead and olive ridley – are known to nest. The initial success of this work has paved the way for the community to generate vital income from conservation-based tourism, underlining the benefits of protecting sea turtles and their eggs.
In partnership with Wildlife Alliance, Fauna & Flora has recently conducted well over 100 surveys at markets and landing sites in Phnom Penh and Cambodia’s four coastal provinces to gather data on illegal trade in sea turtles. We are also working with government agencies to strengthen monitoring and law enforcement, and develop crime prevention strategies. Earlier this year, a green turtle nest was found on a remote island – just as the hatchlings were emerging. This momentous discovery, the first evidence of turtles nesting for a decade, demonstrates that the marine protected areas in which Fauna & Flora operates remain a potentially vital refuge for these increasingly rare reptiles.
Green turtle eggs found on a remote beach in Cambodia. Credit: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora
Five of the world’s most threatened sea turtle species forage in the coastal waters of Cape Verde, the remote archipelago nation lying almost 500 kilometres off the west coast of Africa. The island of Maio harbours one of the world’s most important loggerhead turtle nesting sites. Thanks to the efforts of Fundação Maio Biodiversidade (FMB), with whom Fauna & Flora has partnered since 2012, Maio has been officially designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The long-awaited Protected Areas Management Plan has also been approved. The additional protection afforded to loggerhead turtles and the rest of Maio’s unique biodiversity will help safeguard them against the growing threats to their survival, which include boat traffic and coastal habitat destruction, as well as unsustainable and illegal fishing activities.
An action plan for community-led sea turtle conservation work has been developed with Fauna & Flora’s local partner in Kenya. Eight green turtles were rescued and released last year after being caught in fishing nets, and patrols recorded 24 turtle nests across seven sites.
A hawksbill turtle being released as part of a marine turtle monitoring programme. Credit: German Garcia / Fauna & Flora
Sea turtles have graced our ocean since the time of the dinosaurs, but myriad threats – from plastic pollution to poaching – are jeopardising their future on this planet. We’re straining every sinew to ensure that these ancient reptiles don’t die out on our watch.