31202Preserving the Longevity of the Leatherback Turtle

Turtles are among the oldest of all the world’s extant reptile species, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. They’re dispersed all over the world in a diverse variety of habitats and can survive in virtually any climate. While our affection for these unique animals is longstanding, unfortunately human actions continue to endanger their survival.

The Decline of a Species

The largest of all the species is the magnificent Leatherback Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, which can grow up to 1.6m in length and weigh up to 680kg. They are the last remaining members of the Dermochelyidae family, which dates back some 100 million years. Their appearance is quite distinct from other sea turtles, in that instead of being hard, their shell (or “carapace”) is rubbery and, to some extent, flexible.

In recent times their numbers have fallen to catastrophically low levels, rendering the species endangered. They face a range of challenges, most of them from human activity, including through eggs being taken from the nest to eat (sometimes for aphrodisiac purposes), becoming ensnared in fishing nets, being hit by vessels, or through ingesting the vast (and increasing) amount of plastic in our oceans.

While in the Atlantic their numbers have stabilised, in other parts of the world their population has been decimated to critical levels. In some areas of the Pacific – for example, around Malaysia – they have disappeared altogether.

Taking on Culture for Conservation

In one part of the world, however, things are looking up for the Leatherback Turtle thanks to the work of one committed conservationist. Acclaimed naturalist Sir David Attenborough recently introduced the world to Len Peters, a Trinidadian taking on the traditions of his own culture for the sake of conservation. In Series 1 (Our Blue Planet) of the superb Blue Planet II documentary series, Sir David Attenborough’s team travelled to the Caribbean in search of the species and, along the way, discovered the work of this extraordinary man.

One Man, One Plan

Len Peters grew up in a community where the killing and consumption of turtles was part of life, with turtle meat a staple of the local diet. It wasn’t until he was older and learnt about the threat of extinction to the species that he began to realise the importance of taking conservation action.

In an extraordinary act of courage, Len began patrolling the beaches around his home at night to protect the turtles from being harvested by the locals. His actions were met with strong and very hostile resistance and he quickly realised that if he was to be successful he needed to approach the situation from a different angle. His vision involved gaining community support by representing turtles as a benefit rather than a food source.

Firstly, Len set up a programme to encourage tourists to visit the beaches at night in order to see the turtles and trained up some of the villagers to work as guides. Then he began visiting local schools with his message of conservation, in order to encourage the upcoming generation to see the importance of managing the species’ survival.

By instilling a local pride in the Leatherback Turtle, Len Peters has been able to slowly but surely alter an entire community’s mindset. This collective change in attitude has seen involvement from the villagers increase exponentially, and many who formerly hunted the turtles are now an intrinsic part of their conservation programme.

Explore the World on a Nature Cruise

For anyone with a passion for marine wildlife who wants to experience just a little taste of Sir David Attenborough’s life, a nature cruise is one of the most effective ways of getting up close and personal with the world’s most fascinating and endangered species, including turtles, dolphins, whales, seals and a host of others. With well thought-out itineraries and expert naturalist guides, a nature cruise is one of the most memorable and fulfilling travel experiences available.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in marine species. For wildlife lovers interested in dedicated nature cruise itineraries, Marissa recommends the tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of species in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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