Nations cooperate to save a threatened giant: the sea turtle

For more than 60 million years, the ritual has continued. A giant sea turtle glides in with the waves then crawls awkwardly up a sandy beach, scrapes out a nest with her flippers, and lays 100 to 150 eggs. When they hatch, the tiny creatures instinctively head for the brightest thing they can see, the ocean. Many are eaten by natural predators before they reach the water; and many more are eaten in the water before they mature. But enough have survived in each cycle -- it only takes one or two -- to perpetuate one of the world's oldest, little-changed species.

Man, however, has complicated their survival. The bright lights of condominiums along Florida coasts attract hatchlings, and many have crawled to their death on roads instead of heading for the relative safety of the ocean. Their eggs are harvested in many nations for food. Adult turtles are killed to make soup, turtle-head bookends, turtle-shell rims for glasses, and leather boots from the flippers.

The five sea-turtle species that reach United States waters are considered under federal law to be either ``threatened'' or in the even more serious category of ``endangered.'' One of those species, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle, faces possible extinction in 10 years, according to one Georgia ecologist.

But when sea-turtle experts meet in Georgia this month, there will be some good news to share: Most species of the sea turtle appear to be holding their own or even making a tentative comeback.

Growing cooperation among Caribbean and other nations, including the US, at the government and private level, appears to be having an effect. If such cooperation continues to prove positive, it may be applied to other species with a tenuous future -- including the manatee, spiny lobster, conch, and mollusk -- and to coral reefs and tropical forests, according to sea-turtle experts.

``If you can save the sea turtle, you're a long way on the way'' toward saving other species in the world, says James Richardson, who now heads a private, international organization aimed at saving the turtles. ``We hope the idea will be picked up,'' he says.

Mr. Richardson, an ecologist at the University of Georgia, is the first paid director of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Recovery Team, known as WIDECAST.

WIDECAST was formed in 1981 by Milton M. Kaufmann, a retired US Air Force colonel. Private groups in more than two dozen nations in the Caribbean and Central and South America, as well as the US, Bermuda, and the Bahamas, are now part of the group.

At the same time, the governments of more than three dozen nations are cooperating in fact finding about sea turtles. Their organization is the Western Atlantic Turtle Symposium (WATS).

Americans in both groups are trying hard not to make either one appear as an American effort to force conservation efforts on anyone. That would backfire, members of both groups say.

Until a few years ago, information on sea turtles was ``so scanty,'' says Fred Berry of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who is active with WATS. But the intergovernmental research is changing that, he says.

Overall, these experts are encouraged by specific efforts under way to save sea turtles, including less international trade in turtle products, efforts by Mexico to stop the poaching of eggs of the Kemp's ridley, greater use of hatcheries, and initial steps to get Florida condominium owners to direct lights away from the ocean, so they don't attract hatchlings.

The ``threatened'' loggerhead turtle, which nests mostly in Florida, may be making a comeback, according to Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Berry (Richardson, however, disagrees). More are now protected in hatcheries; shrimpers are beginning to use special nets that free turtles that would otherwise drown as they are pulled along in regular shrimp nets. ``The boys got interested in trying to save them,'' says Georgia shrimper Joe Webster, who uses the new net, developed under a federal program.

Pritchard says the green sea turtle is ``creeping back'' from very low numbers. And new nesting sites have been discovered for the ``endangered'' leatherback, he says. -- 30 --

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