Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Conservation at the Vieques Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico

"These eggs are intact." It was an exciting moment in a normal conservation monitoring activity-collecting data on endangered turtle nests from last year's hatching. But, there suddenly in the eroded bank of sand was a newly laid hawksbill sea turtle nest.exposed. It was the first new hawksbill nest of the 2010 season. It would need intervention to survive.

By relocating the nest to a patch of beach that was not eroded and allowing them to finish their maturation, the endangered baby turtles' chances of survival during this early passage of life would be greatly increased.

These eggs would have been laid by an adult female weighting from 80-160 pounds (depending on her age), no greater than three feet in length, who would have excavated the moist nest using her flippers, laid her eggs, and then gently covered it over. Her eggs need about 60 days to incubate under the sand to mature and hatch into fully formed baby turtles about 2 inches in length.

During a follow up visit to monitor the relocated nest, the hatchlings were just breaking out of their ping-pong sized shells under the sand. But, unfortunately, the area above ground was covered with the sandy tracks of prime turtle hatchling predators-mongoose, night heron and ghost crabs.

That evening, five volunteers, including me, gathered to release the baby turtles. Wearing red head lamps (bright light contributing to the turtle's disorientation) and under a waning moon, the volunteers shepherded the 91 turtles towards the gentle waves. Those that make it on the next leg of their journey will live among the protective masses of floating seaweed, eating and sleeping. The ecological loss of an adult Hawksbill is enormous because it takes 20-25 years for it to reach reproductive maturity.

The sad fact is that only an estimated 1 in a 1000 turtles makes it to adulthood, which is why it is so important to increase their survivability. If allowed to flourish, one day they can be removed from the endangered species list.

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