Happy World Sea Turtle Day! Each year on 16 June we turn our attention to the amazing world of marine turtles. In Kenya, World Sea Turtle Day coincides with the peak nesting season and this year there are some exciting technological developments in our conservation efforts.
Five species of marine turtles are known to visit Kenyan waters: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback. Of these, green, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles are known to nest in Kenya. The green turtle is the most common species nesting in Kenya, constituting approximately 97% of reported nests, followed by hawksbill (2.5%) and olive ridley (0.5%). The islands of the Lamu archipelago and the Malindi-Ungwana Bay area are the most important nesting areas.
Marine turtles are a fundamental link in marine ecosystems. They help maintain the health of sea grass beds and coral reefs that benefit commercially valuable species such as shrimp, lobster and tuna. Indeed in Lamu seascape, local communities consider the presence of turtles to be synonymous with fish abundance. But marine turtles face a wide range of pressures including habitat alteration due to infrastructure development; climate change; poaching; and accidental by-catch by fisherfolk.
The mysterious and far-ranging nature of marine turtles presents another conservation challenge. We have pretty good monitoring systems in place for nesting activity but we’ve still got a lot to learn about how turtles behave when they’re at sea.
As you may have read in my other blogs, we’ve been using flipper tags to help us better understand turtle behavior. These are the most common type of tags that are used to mark marine turtles. They’re individually numbered, made from metal or plastic, and are attached by piercing through the skin – just like livestock in the UK is tagged, only with turtles it’s the flipper not the ear that you tag! This allows us to tell when a certain individual returns to Kenya, giving a better understanding of population demographics and individual behaviour, which helps us to plan conservation management interventions.
I’m excited to tell you that this year we’re going one step further and also tagging some nesting females with satellite tags. We’ve done something similar a few years ago and we’re really hoping that this tagging effort will give us more information on where the turtles we see in Kenya go when they’re not nesting and what they’re doing.
These satellite tags are carefully attached to the turtle’s shell and transmit a signal which can be detected by polar orbiting satellites. They generate location data, enabling us to map a turtle’s movements, as well as collect data on a range of parameters such as temperature, depth, dive profiles and swim speed. Data is collected by satellite each time the turtle surfaces which means that data can be collected even if the turtle swims hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from where it was released. We’re really hopeful that we’ll be able to unlock many secrets of marine turtle behaviour and ecology – and we’ll be sure to keep you updated.
Marine turtles may not be as well-known or understood as many other species, but on their brittle shells and leathery eggs they carry the aspirations and hopes of a healthy ocean. This World Turtle Day let’s come together, with a little help from conservation technology, to shine a light on these wondrous creatures!
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