World’s Largest Leatherback Sea Turtle Population Found in Gabon

Written by on June 5, 2009 in Marine Life
Nesting leatherback sea turtle  -  Credit: Canaveral National Seashore

Nesting leatherback sea turtle – Credit: Canaveral National Seashore

In late May, the University of Exeter published the findings of an international team of scientists that identified a nesting population of leatherback sea turtles in Gabon, West Africa and determined it was the world’s largest.

The research was led by the University of Exeter working in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).  Team members carried out the most comprehensive survey of marine turtles ever conducted in the area during three nesting seasons between 2002 and 2007.

Gabon on Wikipedia

Gabon on Wikipedia

This involved aerial surveys along Gabon’s 372 mile (600 km) coast, using video to capture footage for evaluation, and detailed ground-based monitoring.  By covering the entire coastline, they were not only able to estimate the number of nests and nesting females, but also to identify the key sites for leatherback nesting, data which are crucial to developing conservation management plans for the species.  Leatherbacks were first described nesting in Gabon in 1984.

The study revealed that around 79 percent of the nesting occurs within National Parks and other protected areas.  This gives added hope that Gabon can continue to be one of the world’s most important countries for these magnificent creatures.

Dr. Angela Formia of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a co-author of the paper, said, “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.”

Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings - Credit: Jeff Pollin/Marine Photobank

Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings – Credit: Jeff Pollin/Marine Photobank

Lead author on the paper, Dr Matthew Wittof the University of Exeter’s School of Biosciences, said, “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.’   The survey estimated a population of between 15,730 and 41,373 female turtles using the nesting beaches.  “We are now focusing our efforts on working with local agencies to coordinate conservation efforts to ensure this population is protected.” Dr. Witt further said.  The team has received approx. $450,000 (£300,000) Darwin funding for a three-year project, working with local agencies to improve marine biodiversity management in Gabon.  

Leatherbacks are of profound conservation concern around the world.  Populations in the Indo-Pacific crashed by more than 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists leatherback turtles as critically endangered globally, but detailed population assessments in much of the Atlantic, especially Africa, are lacking.

Funds were made available by the Natural Environment Research Council (UK), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – Central African Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) and carried out by the University of Exeter, Wildlife Conservation Society, University of Florence, IUCN-France, PROTOMAC (Gabon), CNDIO-Gabon, IBONGA-ACPE (Gabon), Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (Gabon), Gabon Environnment, Aventures Sans Frontières (Gabon) and WWF-Gabon.

Leatherback in Costa Rica

Leatherback in Costa Rica

Adapted from materials published by the University of Exeter.

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .

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