Race is on to save the leatherback turtle

The ancient Pacific leatherback faces extinction. So experts have found a novel way to generate interest in the plight of this mighty creature and its annual odyssey, reports Peter Popham

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What is it about the word turtle? Why must a fatally outdated style of knitwear, one of America's corniest Sixties pop groups and a dire children's cartoon series all cluster round this innocuous word? The clumsiest thing you can do in a boat is turn turtle. The turtle itself invariably cuts a ridiculous figure, with its hapless looking flippers, its armour-plated clumsiness, the gently extra-terrestrial contours of its skull, its famous sex drive... "The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks, Which practically conceal its sex. I think it clever of the turtle In such a fix to be so fertile," wrote Ogden Nash.

But now a group of very serious people who have made their life's work the study of the Pacific leatherback turtle, have gritted their teeth behind fixed grins and decided to make the most of the fact that the turtle cannot avoid being funny.

Because the bitter fact is that 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 extinction. It is the kind of thought that ought to give our entire species vertigo.

In 1980 there were more than 115,000 adult female leatherback turtles, but today there are fewer than 25,000 worldwide. In 1988, 1,367 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. The downfall of the Pacific, say the people who have devoted their lives to its study, seemed unthinkable when they were graduating from college, the Pacific so vast, the animal itself so bizarrely versatile, its rubbery shell enabling it do dive far deeper than other turtles, "so fertile", as Nash noted, that it laid tens of thousands of eggs.

But we've done it, mankind has done it; even this amazing achievement has not been beyond our unflaggingly destructive species. By dint of rampant seashore development, bright lights on the shore, rampant poaching (turtle eggs are esteemed as an aphrodisiac), pelagic longlines, a form of fishing net set by fishermen with 4.5 million hooks every night, the equivalent of 100,000 miles of barbed wire in the oceans, drift nets unfurled like huge underwater fences off the coasts of Peru and Chile - thanks to all these cunning schemes, we've finally got the bastards. Another few years should finish the ugly critters off.

"I never thought this ancient creature would be vulnerable to extinction," says Larry Crowder of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. "Unless something changes, the Pacific will be extinct within 10 to 30 years." But we are glutted with bad news, our eyes glaze over, we flip the page or change the channel. So in a last, desperate attempt to break through our boredom and evasiveness, the leatherback folk have turned the Pacific leatherback's desperate Pacific odyssey into an on-line 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, way before the advent of man, back into the Cretaceous period and the heyday of the dinosaurs. From the gently sloping yellow sand of Playa Grande in Las Baulas National Park, Costa Rica, 11 huge female leatherback turtles, up to 2,000 lbs (907kgs) in weight and 6 ft long, wade and waddle and slap their way across the sand and into the eastern Pacific.

Their names are Turtleocity, Purple Lightning, Billie, Genevieve, Saphira, etc. On the website one is at the wheel of a car, one is reading a travel brochure while wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, one has a dragon perched on its back.

Flip the card to read more about the turtle: "If it were possible to burn rubber under water," burbles Genevieve's card, "this would be the turtle to do it. She's revved up and ready to roll ... She started the race with some fresh scrapes and wounds on her shoulder," says Windie's, "but this fighter completed the long trek to her nesting site and is back in the water and on her way. The sentimental favourite, she has a good shot at first place..."

Go to greatturtlerace.com to follow the progress of the turtles as, nesting finished, they launch themselves from the beach and set off in a long arc, 1,200 miles across the ocean to their feeding grounds in the Galapagos islands. Of course the turtles didn't all start out on 16 April, 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. But what is true is that the leatherbacks are all starting from the same place - the beach that has become the last refuge of the leatherback on the East Pacific coast, the only spot along this great sweep of sand where they still come to nest - and the Galapagos is where they will all end up. Drift nets and pelagic longlines allowing, of course.

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 Trust people to strap backpacks that contain the satellite transmitters to them. But of course the "race" is just a cute spin-off from the real purpose of the tags (which fall away after a couple of years).

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 tiny 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, discouraging residents from hanging bright lights outside their properties. "We never intended to do all this," says James Spotila, another researcher. "But you study this magnificent animal and you see it going extinct if you don't step in and do something.

It's like the kid walking by the dyke with the leak in it. You stick your finger in it. Then you cannot very well leave." Equally important, but even more difficult, is trying to rein in the practices of the fishing industry. "The Pacific is the Wild West," Frank Palladino, head of biology at Indiana Purdue University, told the Los Angeles Times.

"It's over-fished by these huge fleets, especially from Asia, and there are no regulations at all. It's not just leatherbacks. Everything is going in the Pacific: sharks, dolphins, billfish. Leatherbacks are just the first to go."

So the chances of Billie, Windie, Purple Lightning and the rest making it all the way to the Galapagos are less than brilliant - particularly given the experience of Frank Paladino's team in 1996. "Many of these satellite-tagged turtles seemed to hit a zone in the Pacific where the transmitters and the turtles seemed to disappear ... we suspect that they are being caught on longline and gill net fisheries near the Galapagos Islands, and off the coasts of Equador and Chile." So a warning to parents of small children for whom the Great Turtle Race might seem the perfect introduction to learning to care about the environment: it could all end in tears. Just like the real world.

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