Leatherback turtles in an online race for species survival

By Peter Popham

Researchers who have made their life's work the study of the Pacific leatherback turtle have come up with a novel way to save it from extinction.

The leatherback, which is as old as the dinosaurs to which it is closely related, and which sailed blithely through the cataclysmic event that wiped out all its earthbound cousins 65 million years ago, is now on the verge of disappearing.

In 1980 there were more than 115,000 adult female leatherback turtles, but today there are fewer than 25,000 worldwide. In 1988, 1367 female leatherbacks came to nest on Playa Grande in Las Baulas, the national park on the coast of Costa Rica, which is their last bolt-hole on that coast. In 2001 there were only 67.

By dint of rampant seashore development, bright lights on the shore, poaching (turtle eggs are esteemed as an aphrodisiac) and overfishing with longlines and setnets, the creatures could be gone within a few years.

"I never thought this ancient creature would be vulnerable to extinction," said Larry Crowder of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. "Unless something changes, the [turtles] will be extinct within 10 to 30 years." So in a last, desperate attempt to save the turtle, the Leatherback Trust has turned the Pacific leatherback's desperate Pacific odyssey into an online children's game.

It's called the Great Turtle Race, and you can find it at greatturtlerace.com

The "race" is the web-based dramatisation of a natural event that has been going on for about 100 million years.

From the gently sloping yellow sand of Playa Grande, 11 huge female leatherback turtles, up to 900kg in weight and 2m long, wade and waddle and slap their way across the sand and into the eastern Pacific.

Online viewers can follow the progress of the turtles as, nesting finished, they launch themselves from the beach and set off in a long arc, 1200 miles across the ocean to their feeding grounds in the Galapagos islands. Of course the turtles didn't all start out on April 16, as the game pretends: like the Tour de France, starts were staggered - the turtles set off when they chose - so they are also calling it the Tour de Turtle. To make it more fun and encourage masses of people to go to the site they are making out that it is all synchronised.

The internet turtle race is made possible by satellite tags: during the 20 minutes or so in which the turtles deposit their eggs in the sand they are immobile, in a sort of trance, allowing the Leatherback Trust people to strap backpacks that contain the satellite transmitters to them.

The founder of the trust, Jim Spotila of Drexel University, explains, "If we want to protect the leatherbacks, we need to know where they go and why they go there. The ocean changes all the time ... so it's very difficult to protect migratory species like leatherbacks because they change their routes ...

"The data that turtles are sending us will let us predict their journeys ... and help us to protect them."

Tapping into the association of turtles with teenagers, mutants and ninjas is only one aspect of the work of the trust. Coaxing the Costa Rican Government into making the area around Playa Grande a national park was one major achievement. Another, even more crucial, was the initiative of a woman called Maria Teresa Koberg - known today as the Turtle Mother of Costa Rica - in single-handedly shutting down the poaching industry which nearly destroyed the leatherback's Costa Rican nesting grounds, by getting the poachers to appreciate the damage they were doing.

Today, the trust continues to work on making the national park a better environment for the turtles, buying land behind the beach from would-be developers and discouraging residents from hanging bright lights outside their properties.


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