On the brink of extinction
By ALISON ANIS
On a starry night on a remote beach along the Huon coast peninsula in
Morobe province, huge waves brought about by the crazy December tides
crashed on to the shore splattering wave patterns across the sand.
Further in, at a safer and within glancing distance, two figures lay
low on the dry sand, video camera in hand waiting anxiously to capture
any movement from the shoreline onto their roll of film.
The two figures were Todd Steiner, the founder of the Turtle Islands
Restoration Network (TIRN) based in California, USA, and his wife
Lynnette who were visiting Papua New Guinea for the first time in
The couple came here to identify traditional nesting sites of one of
the world's oldest and most endangered species of sea turtles - the
giant leatherback turtle - and help protect these creatures from the
brink of extinction.
The leatherback sea turtle or Dermochelys Coriacea as is it
scientifically known has survived for more than a hundred million
years. It is also the largest marine turtle and one of the largest
According to scientists these turtles could be the only surviving
species known today from the age of the dinosaurs that has been
enlisted as critically endangered species under the IUCN Red List of
Threatened Species (IUCN 2000, 2003) and the Endangered Species Act on
June 2, 1970.
Mr Steiner and wife Lynnette were to be rewarded several minutes later.
They watched excitedly from where they lay as a giant female
leatherback struggled up the smooth black sand, her flippers digging
into the sand as she approached her nesting place to lay her eggs.
The couple captured this exciting moment in film having witnessed it
for the first time here in the country.
They were accompanied by Peter Fuggazzotto, Campaigns Director of the
Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP) who is also based in California
and STRP western pacific campaigner Wenceslaus Magun who is based in
Port Moresby, PNG.
The trio from California arrived in the country with the help of Mr
Magun to help set up a restoration project to protect the endangered
species by identifying traditional nesting sites for the leatherbacks.
Days later, after this rare encounter with the world's largest sea
turtle the team visited Karkum village along the north coast of Madang
While there they witnessed another female leatherback coming ashore to
its nesting site to breed.
"Two days before we arrived there, the locals reported having sighted
one coming home to its nesting place to lay eggs," says Magun.
According to Mr Magun the scenario was repeated for the following days
at Tokain, Sabente, Karkum and at Mirap villages where at least one or
two sightings have been recorded.
In all, Mr Magun and his team recorded a total of ten female
leatherbacks that came to lay eggs during December 2006.
Sadly, this was not to be a year later. In December, 2007, there was
only one such sighting of a female leatherback at Yadigam village.
This left Mr Magun and his team of campaigners dumbfounded and fearing
the worst given the threats surrounding these rare species of
What had happened to the rest? Where have they all gone? These
questions remain unanswered.
Mr Magun said the leatherback turtles were declining so rapidly that
scientists predicted that in the next 20 years it will be extinct if
fishing and other activities harmful to them were not discontinued.
"The rapid decline of leatherback turtle is shocking and calls for
necessary actions to be taken immediately to protect this endangered
species from the danger of becoming extinct," Mr Magun said.
In 1982, it was estimated that 11,500 adult female leatherbacks
existed worldwide. In recent years, however, the number of nesting
leatherbacks have been in an alarming decline (95 % in the Pacific)
and are in danger of extinction in the Pacific in the next 5 - 30
years unless something is done to protect and restore the population.
Recent estimates by WWF show that this species has declined
precipitously throughout its range, particularly in the Pacific over
the last twenty years: In fact as few as 2,300 adult females now
remain, making the Pacific leatherback the world's most endangered
marine turtle population.
It is because of this that scientists have predicted that PNG could be
the last stronghold for leatherback sea turtles in the western
Hence, conservation of the leatherback nesting sites in the New Guinea
is essential for the survival of the species in the Western Pacific
"That is why it is also important to protect the handful of other
nesting sites that line the coasts of Papua and PNG and leatherbacks
that swim from New Guinea to their foraging grounds as far as the
Phillipines and California from longlines and gillnets," says Mr
Such urgency has seen STRP extends it activities from Costa Rica and
United States (California and Texas) and recently to the Pacific. It
now operates in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea to save, protect and
restore the western pacific leatherbacks turtles.
Actions have been taken under STRP at the village level to protect
their nesting sites and restore its population however much more needs
to be done at the national level.
To revive the current western pacific population PNG needs to
prioritized more on this issue and consider fisheries policy that that
is both sustainable and less harmful to sea turtles and other marine
One of the biggest threats facing marine life and especially the seat
turtles is the rising sea levels as a result of global warming.
"We have visited and seen the destruction caused to breeding and
nesting sites for leatherbacks in Madang by sea-level rise due to
climate change. This could be one of the reasons why we see less
number of sea turtles coming to breed.
"However, human threats still remains the biggest threat to our
leatherbacks," says Magun.
He said the threats by human include development of nesting beaches,
unsustainable harvest of eggs, drowning from industrial fishing
practices such as longlining and gillnetting and ingestion of plastic
bags and pollution.
Leatherbacks have historically been taken only rarely for their meat.
The greatest threat used to be to their eggs, and this threat still
exists. There aren't many eggs to poach these days, however, because
fewer leatherbacks show up to nest scientists have concluded that
gill-net and longline fisheries are to blame.
The greatest threat to adult sea turtles is their accidental capture
and drowning in industrial fishing operations.
A group of sea turtle biologists recently confirmed (June 2000) that
gill-net and longline fisheries were probably causing the decline.
They published their findings in the prestigious journal Nature and
based that on the steep decline in the number of nesting turtle.
Although some actions have been taken to limit the impact of longline
in the Pacific, the future of leatherbacks is still seriously in