News: Tobago turtles under threat

Tobago's leatherback turtles, an important attraction for tourists, are in grave danger of extinction, according to a US marine biologist.

Tobago's leatherback turtles, an important attraction for tourists, are in grave danger of extinction, according to a US marine biologist.

The giant creatures are the subject of diving tours around the island between March and July, when they arrive to lay eggs. But local practices, including fishermen's fêtes (at which turtle soup is served) and off-shore gill fishing, are steadily eroding their numbers, which have dropped internationally from an estimated 115,000 nesting females in 1980 to fewer than 30,000 now.

Professor Scott Eckert of Hubbs-Seaworld research institute in San Diego, California, said: "It's an issue all over the world, but Tobago seems to be holding on to that tradition of eating them longer than most. It is illegal, but the law is not particularly well enforced.

"It is a relatively small number of turtles we are talking about in comparison with Trinidad or French Guyana - possibly just several hundred. But when the Tobago turtles are gone, that will be it. Nesting habits are built up over a great many years, and it is unlikely that a new generation would find its way there."

Leatherback turtles are one of the marine world's great travellers, covering 6,000 to 9,000 miles (10,000 to 15,000km) a year in their quest for food and a safe place to nest. Tobago's turtles travel on "highways" made up of currents that go northwards up the Caribbean coast into the Atlantic; then they follow the water back down to the Azores in a journey that is completed once every two years.

When they are in season each female can lay up to 11 nests of 10 eggs, at 10-day intervals. The baby turtles that survive can sometimes grow, over their 50, 60 or 70 years of life, up to 160cm long.

In addition to other dangers, leatherbacks are frequently washing up dead with a gut full of plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish, the food on which they graze.

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