Puerto Rico Protects Turtle Nesting Habitat

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Following an intense 15 year battle between environmental campaigners and developers, the Puerto Rican government has introduced a new law protecting the nesting sites of the largest turtle species on Earth, the Leatherback. In a move likely to be celebrated by conservationists worldwide, 14 square kilometres of the island’s coastline, known as the Northeast Ecological Corridor, has been saved from development. Land owners had been hoping to convert much of this luscious beach habitat into hotels, homes and golf courses, to boost the island’s tourism economy by creating new jobs. However, the government ultimately recognised the value of this habitat to the endangered Leatherback turtle and 861 other species, of which 50 are endemic or threatened. Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla on Saturday promised to protect the site ‘forever’. Instead the economy will be supported by ecotourism, centred on this spectacular biodiversity hotspot.

Nesting location of Leatherback sea Turtle : r...

Nesting location of Leatherback sea Turtle : red dot = major nesting locations, yellow dot=minor nesting locations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leatherback turtles are enormous creatures measuring around 1.5m in length. The largest individual ever recorded weighed in at a staggering 916kg. Unlike other turtle species, Leatherbacks lack a bony shell. Instead, their carapace is covered by a layer of skin and oily flesh with a texture much like leather, hence their name. According to the most recent IUCN survey, Leatherbacks are critically endangered and at serious risk of extinction in the near future. Part of the reason is that despite being a pelagic species, females choose to dig nests on sandy beaches. In the past their eggs have been targeted by poachers, and in Puerto Rico last August there was outrage when developers allowed bulldozers onto this region of coastline, as thousands of eggs and newly hatched turtles were crushed by the machines.

English: Baby leatherback turtle, at Gumbo Lim...

English: Baby leatherback turtle, at Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other threats to the Leatherback turtle include climate change, fishing practices and ingestion of plastic mistaken for their jellyfish prey. Climate change is a particular concern, owing to the fact that temperature is critical to the incubation of leatherback eggs, as it determines the sex of the hatchling. If global temperatures rise, it is likely to skew the sex ratio of the species and also cause developmental defects. Similarly, changes to weather patterns could impact the stability of the turtle’s beach nesting sites. Being a species with a slow life history, the leatherback turtle cannot adapt quickly to environmental change.

The protection of the Northeast Ecological Corridor is not straightforward however, as the government still has to purchase 35% of the reserve from private landowners. This move towards environmental protection is one of an increasing number for Puerto Rico in recent years. 8% of the land area is currently protected, and they aim to double this in the near future. However, the island still lags behind its neighbours, with 54% of the US Virgin islands and 42% of the Dominican Republic currently protected. But the move by the Puerto Rican government to preserve the habitat of the leatherback turtles and protect them from human threats, is a step forward for the conservation of this wonderful species.

Photo credit: reiner.kraft / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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