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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Olive Ridley Turtles

The Pacific coast of Nicaragua hosts two of the five most important beaches for Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) reproduction in the Americas. One of them, Refugio de Vida Silvestre Playa La Flor, is located south of San Juan del Sur about 18 kilometers. The other, Refugio de Vida Silvestre Rio Escalante Chacocente, is north of San Juan del Sur, and south of the beaches near Managua. Both these beaches, designated Wildlife Refuges by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, Students of Apoyo Spanish School made a pilgrimage to the Chacocente beach recently to witness the thrilling events of sea turtles laying eggs along the beach, as well as hatching of nests, with baby turtles scurrying along in their first steps toward the sea.
Olive Ridley turtle
A baby Olive Ridley turtle on its way to the Pacific ocean, seconds after emerging from its nest. Photo Gordon Evans.
Female Olive Ridley turtles amass along the shores of selected beaches, and they mob their beaches in a group egg-laying event. The nests erupt with up to about one hundred baby turtles which, upon hatching, push in unison to break out of the sand packed above them. Once out of the nest, the newly hatched turtles make a mad dash toward the ocean, through a gauntlet of dangers such as crabs, raccoons, vultures and caracaras, all feasting on the babies as they race to the water. Once in the ocean, baby turtles are prey for lots of fish poised to feed on them. The attrition among newly hatched Olive Ridley turtles is dramatic.
Baby Olive Ridley Turtles, just emerged from their nest, race toward the ocean at Chacocente Wildlife Refurge. Photo Gordon Evans.
The dark sand at Chacocente beach is, at special moments, crowded with hundred of turtles laying eggs, and thousands of hatchlings racing to sea. Although the majority of the activity occurs under the cover of night, much can be seen during the daylight hours when the peak activity is happening. Often, one nest, near hatching, is destroyed by a turtle digging to lay her own eggs, and the broken eggs rot, destroying all the eggs in both clutches, and polluting the beach all around. By the end of the nesting season, the nests often do not survive to hatching, thanks to the heavy loads of microbes throughout the beaches.
Olive Ridley turtle
Baby Olive Ridley turtles emerge from their nest, fresh from hatching. Photo Gordon Evans.
The normal attrition caused by double-nesting turtles, however, is just one more natural hazard that sea turtles face. Much more serious threats are posed by humans, however, to the Olive Ridley turtle populations around the world. Its eggs, considered delicacies everywhere they are found, are harvested for human consumption unsustainably. Nicaragua has recently banned the harvesting and sale of sea turtle eggs, but restaurants still carry them, because demand is high.
Olive Ridley Turtles
Olive Ridley Turtles see the light of day for the first time. Only a few of the one hundred eggs in this nest will result in an adult sea turtle. The great majority of these turtles will fall victim to predation, many within the coming minutes. Photo Gordon Evans.
Sea turtle beaches can be destroyed completely by residential and touristic development. A tragic example of the destruction of a beach used by the Olive Ridley turtles for nesting is Acupulco, Mexico, where lights from touristic development distract the turtles from laying eggs. The Nicaraguan beaches must stay pristine and even use of flashlights must be kept to a minimum in order to encourage the continued use of the beaches for turtle reproduction.
Olive Ridley Turtles
An Olive Ridley Turtle heads back to the ocean after depositing her clutch of eggs in the beach at Chacocente Wildlife Refuge. Photo Gordon Evans.
Scientists still know little about sea turtle reproduction and biology, so programs to learn more about them including tagging adult sea turtles with radio transmitters, counting turtle nests by season, and other marking programs are being applied wherever sensitive populations are found. Turtle hatcheries and other programs are promoted to increase the rates of baby turtles reaching the oceans, in an attempt to increase adult populations. Some programs focus on improving the lives of poor people living in the vicinity of the beaches, in order to provide alternatives which allow the people to resolve their basic needs and to find ways to earn a living through sustainable, environmentally compatible, tourism.
Sea Turtle eggs
The Olive Ridley Turtle populations worldwide are at risk from loss of nesting habitat and from the human consumption of sea turtle eggs. Photo Gordon Evans.
Every time a few dollars reaches the hand of a local person working to save the Olive Ridley turtles, real progress is made in the protection of the species and especially the populations which reproduce on the shores of Nicaragua. Rural communities are plagued by unemployment, and the little employment in the area is very poorly paid. Subsistence farming does not sustain families in a decent quality of life, and the local people around these beaches need incentives to protect the turtles instead of harvesting and selling their eggs.
Sea turtle egg laying
Olive Ridley turtles come to shore on sandy beaches, dig holes with their fins, deposit around one hundred eggs, then cover the eggs with sand, pack the sand over the eggs, then return to the ocean. Photo Gordon Evans.
Seeing an Olive Ridley turtle lay her eggs is dramatic, and watching the miracle of newly hatched turtle babies race toward the ocean is even more so. By visiting one of the turtle beaches during these events, tourists make local people appreciate their natural treasure by helping them earn money through its protection.
Black Vultures watch over the beach for an easy meal of baby turtles. Photo Gordon Evans.
turtle eggs
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