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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

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Saving Endangered Sea Turtles

Two leading environmental organizations, Earthwatch Institute and Ocean Conservancy, have partnered on the SEE Turtles project to promote conservation of the world’s endangered sea turtle populations. As all seven of the planet’s species are under threat, the goal of the project is to demonstrate how public involvement in turtle conservation can have a bigger economic impact on local communities than traditional hunting.

SEE Turtles formally launches at the 28th Annual Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation Symposium, held by the International Sea Turtle Society, in Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico, from January 19 to 26. Like the SEE Turtles campaign itself, many of this year’s Symposium offerings will demonstrate both the environmental and economic benefits of turtle conservation.

Sea turtles—marine reptiles whose forms and lifecycles have been virtually unchanged for millions of years—are under threat from many angles, including increased human development that destroys coastal nesting habitats, ocean pollution, indiscriminate fishing practices, and hunting. As a result, some turtle populations have seen up to a 90% decline in recent decades. In response, the SEE Turtles project will work to bring together concerned members of the public with local communities as a way to underscore the economic value of conservation. Recent studies by the World Wildlife Fund suggest that turtle-based conservation experiences have the potential to bring in more than three times the income of egg poaching.

Both Earthwatch and Ocean Conservancy have already shown the proof of the concept in popular destinations ranging from Baja to the Northwest coast of Coast Rica and the Caribbean isles of Trinidad and Tobago. These areas have well-established, ongoing sea-turtle studies in which volunteers can participate and help impact significant victories for the turtles.

Perhaps nowhere has success been more evident than on the Parque Nacional Las Baulas beaches of Costa Rica. When Dr. Frank Paladino of Indiana-Purdue University and Dr. James Spotila of Drexel University first arrived there in 1988 to study the leatherback sea turtles, they had to “rent” a territory from the local egg-poachers. That year, only a single leatherback hatchling made it to the sea. Years later, former poachers have become employed as proud and capable national park guards and guides, and virtually the entire community is invested in its leatherbacks.

“Local attitudes and awareness have improved immensely since we began working in Costa Rica,” said Dr. Richard Reina of Monash University, another principal investigator of Costa Rican Sea Turtles. “Our education program in local schools has fostered an understanding of and appreciation for natural resources in the children. Local people now appreciate that long-term survival and sustainability of natural resources including turtles is far more desirable than the short-term exploitation without constraint.”

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