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Rare Leatherback Sea Turtles Returning to Thailand’s Empty Beaches

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“This is a very good sign for us because many areas for spawning have been destroyed by humans. No such nests had been found for the previous five years.”



Rare Leatherback Sea Turtles Returning to Thailand's Empty Beaches

Thailand has found the largest number of nests of rare leatherback sea turtles in two decades on beaches bereft of tourists because of the coronavirus pandemic, environmentalists say.

In Thailand a ban on international flights to an appeal to citizens to stay home have brought a collapse in tourist numbers. Because of the lack of humans its freed up the beaches for wildlife.

The 11 turtle nests authorities have found since last November were the highest number in 20 years, said Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center.

“This is a very good sign for us because many areas for spawning have been destroyed by humans,” he told Reuters. No such nests had been found for the previous five years.

“If we compare to the year before, we didn’t have this many spawn, because turtles have a high risk of getting killed by angling gear and humans disturbing the beach.”

Leatherbacks are the world’s largest sea turtles. They are considered endangered in Thailand, and listed as a vulnerable species globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

They lay their eggs in dark and quiet areas, scarce when tourists thronged the beaches. People have also been known to dig into their nests and steal eggs.

Late in March, staff at a national park in the southern province of Phanga Nga bordering the Andaman Sea found 84 hatchlings after monitoring eggs for two months.


Thailand’s leatherback sea turtles

The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of all living turtles and is the fourth largest modern reptile behind some crocodilians. They are unique among sea turtles for a variety of reasons. Here are some key points about them:

1. **Appearance**: Unlike other turtles, leatherback sea turtles do not have a hard, bony shell. Instead, their name derives from their shell, which is leather-like and flexible, composed of a matrix of bony plates beneath a dark rubbery skin.

2. **Size**: Leatherbacks are the largest turtles on Earth. Adults typically weigh between 550 and 2,000 pounds (250 to 900 kilograms), but the largest individuals can weigh as much as 2,020 pounds (915 kg). They can also reach lengths of up to 6.6 feet (2 meters).

3. **Diet**: Jellyfish are the primary diet of leatherback turtles. Their specialized throat and mouth structures help them consume and digest gelatinous prey.

4. **Migration**: Leatherback sea turtles are known for their long migrations. They are found in oceans worldwide, from the cold waters off Canada and Norway to the tropical beaches of Thailand and even the Caribbean.

5. **Nesting**: Female leatherbacks come ashore to nest, typically returning to the same beaches where they were born. They dig a pit in the sand, lay their eggs, cover them, and then return to the sea.

6. **Threats**: These turtles face many threats, both natural and man-made. They include predation of eggs and hatchlings by coastal animals, getting accidentally caught in fishing nets, pollution, marine debris (especially plastic bags which can be mistaken for jellyfish), coastal development affecting their nesting sites, and climate change.

7. **Conservation**: The leatherback sea turtle is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but some populations are critically endangered. Many conservation efforts are in place worldwide to protect these majestic creatures and their habitats.

8. **Unique Adaptations**: Leatherbacks have several special adaptations that allow them to tolerate colder water temperatures, including counter-current heat exchangers, high oil content, and a large body size. This has enabled them to venture into much colder waters than other sea turtles.

9. **Life Span**: The exact lifespan of leatherback sea turtles is not fully known but is estimated to be 30-50 years or more.

10. **Decline**: Over the past few decades, the global population of leatherback sea turtles has significantly declined, primarily due to human activities.

Preserving these ancient mariners requires international cooperation, as well as efforts to mitigate threats like marine pollution, habitat destruction, and bycatch in fishing gear.

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