Mar 11
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In the News: Victory for freshwater turtles and tortoises at CITES

Several freshwater turtle and tortoise species are to be afforded greater protection as a result of successful conservation talks at the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

Swinhoe’s soft shell turtle image

Swinhoe’s soft shell turtle is number 2 on the 25 most endangered turtles list

Turtle proposals

At the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), proposals were put forward to restrict trade in 44 Asian turtle and tortoise species, as well as three North American pond turtle species. These proposals were mostly led by the U.S., although some of the suggested amendments were presented jointly by the U.S. and China, marking the first time that these two countries have worked together to conserve reptiles.

Conservation victory

Government negotiators at the meeting have accepted the proposals, which have now been adopted under the CITES agreement. This has been viewed as a victory for the conservation of reptiles, and is a welcome step towards saving these threatened species.

We are extremely heartened by today’s vote to give greater protection to these highly imperiled species,” said Bryan Arroyo, head of the U.S. delegation to the CITES 16th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP16). “More than half of the world’s freshwater turtles are threatened with extinction, yet they continue to be traded, unsustainably, for food, as pets, and in traditional medicines. We’ve taken a significant step forward today to begin managing that trade.”

Burmese starred tortoise image

The Burmese starred tortoise is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Threatened reptiles

The acceptance of the proposals means that trade in the 44 Asian species and 3 North American species will now be more carefully regulated, and this result has come just in time. According to a 2011 report published by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Turtle Conservation Coalition, nearly 70 percent of the world’s 25 most endangered turtles are found in Asia, where the reptiles are in high demand for meat and other products including traditional medicine. For example, Swinhoe’s soft shell turtle, also known as the Yangtze giant softshell tortoise, is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and is one of the species which will benefit from the new proposals.

With the depletion of Asia’s turtle populations, harvesting has shifted to the U.S., where there is concern for native turtle species such as the diamondback terrapin, which is increasingly under threat. It is hoped that the newly adopted regulations will play a part in managing turtle harvesting in the U.S. before it becomes a bigger issue.

 

Burmese roofed turtle image

The Burmese roofed turtle is one of the 25 most endangered turtle species

International cooperation

The joint submission of two proposals by China and the U.S. has been highlighted as a big event, demonstrating remarkable cooperation between the countries for increased protection for a number of Asian turtle species.

This signals that the Chinese government is committed to being serious about conservation. It’s a leap forward for both countries in terms of conservation,” said Arroyo.

Various campaign groups were also pleased with the outcome, with charity Care for the Wild releasing a statement urging pet owners to remember that the trend for housing exotic pets has a price, and that these creatures belong in the wild.

The CITES CoP16 runs until the 14th March.

Read more on this story at BBC News – Turtle ‘victory’ at wildlife meeting and Mongabay – Turtles win greater protection at CITES meeting.

View photos and videos of turtles and tortoises on ARKive.

 

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Feb 28
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In the News: Leatherback turtles suffer huge decline in Pacific

The leatherback turtle is disappearing from its most important nesting sites in the western Pacific, according to a new study.

Photo of female leatherback turtle at nesting site on beach

Female leatherback turtle on nesting beach

The study found that the number of leatherback turtle nests in the Bird’s Head Peninsula of New Guinea has dropped by a staggering 78% in the last 30 years. These beaches account for three-quarters of the western Pacific’s nesting leatherback turtles, meaning this decline could have serious consequences for the future of the species in the Pacific Ocean.

Sea turtles have been around about 100 million years and survived the extinction of the dinosaurs but are struggling to survive the impact of humans,” said Thane Wibbels, one of the researchers.

Photo of fishermen with dead, captured leatherback turtle

Fishermen holding a dead, captured leatherback turtle

Leatherback threats

The leatherback turtle is the largest of the world’s turtles, and is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Like all sea turtles, this species faces a range of threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, boat strikes, harvesting of its eggs by humans, and predation of its eggs by feral dogs and pigs. In addition, the leatherback turtle also accidentally consumes plastic bags, mistaking them for its jellyfish prey.

Climate change is also a serious threat to the leatherback turtle. Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent and violent storms may erode nesting beaches and destroy nests, while changing ocean currents are likely to affect the turtle’s prey.

Photo of feral dogs digging up leatherback turtle eggs

Feral dogs are a threat to leatherback turtles, digging up and eating their eggs

The gender of leatherback turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated, so warmer sand is likely to produce more females, skewing the species’ sex ratio. In addition, warmer temperatures have been known to cause abnormalities in hatchlings, and to affect the health and development of the young turtles.

In comparison to the Atlantic Ocean, where several nesting populations of leatherback turtles have increased in recent years, the status of the species in other oceans is of greater concern.

The leatherback is one of the most intriguing animals in nature, and we are watching it head towards extinction in front of our eyes,” said Wibbels.

Leatherback conservation

Conservationists have begun programmes to move leatherback turtle nests to more sheltered and shaded areas, where the eggs will be cooler, in the hope of increasing the success rate of hatchlings.

Photo of leatherback turtle hatchling

Leatherback turtle hatchlings face many perils, and very few survive to adulthood

The leatherback turtle is legally protected throughout most of its range, and a variety of other conservation measures are underway to help save this impressive marine reptile. For example, the attachment of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) to fishing nets to reduce bycatch of turtles has been recommended.

However, much still needs to be done to save this marine giant. According to the researchers, a range of conservation measures need to be implemented at nesting beaches and in national and international waters if the decline of the Pacific’s last remaining leatherback stronghold is to be reversed.

 

Read more on this story at Mongabay – Leatherback sea turtles suffer 78 percent decline at critical nesting sites in Pacific.

Read about our recent Twitter turtle takeover.

View photos and videos of turtles on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive text author

Feb 15
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In the News: One in five reptile species at risk of extinction

Nearly a fifth of the world’s reptile species are at risk of extinction, according to a new study.

Photo of female globe-horned chameleon on branch

The globe-horned chameleon is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

The study, led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in collaboration with 200 experts from the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, is the first of its kind to summarise the global conservation status of the world’s reptiles.

By analysing a random sample of 1,500 reptile species, it found that around 19% of reptiles are threatened. Of these, 12% are classified as Critically Endangered, 41% as Endangered and 47% as Vulnerable.

Reptiles under threat

The findings of the study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, also highlighted the possible extinction of three reptile species. These include the jungle runner lizard (Ameiva vittata), which has only ever been recorded in one part of Bolivia but has not been seen since its habitat was destroyed.

The study also showed that threats to reptiles are particularly high in tropical regions, where deforestation and the spread of agriculture are significant concerns.

Photo of pig-nosed turtle underwater

Freshwater turtles, such as the pig-nosed turtle, are some of the most threatened of all reptiles

Of all the reptile groups, freshwater turtles are one of the most threatened, with half of all freshwater turtle species believed to be at risk of extinction, mainly due to harvesting for food and the pet and medicine trades. Overall, 30% of all reptiles associated with freshwater and marine environments are under threat.

Sensitive to change

There are over 9,000 known species of reptiles in the world, and this diverse group includes turtles, tortoises, snakes, crocodiles, lizards, tuataras, and the worm-like amphisbaenians. Reptiles play an important role in ecosystems, both as predators and prey.

The risk is – if you lose a really important food source you can change food webs quite dramatically,” said Dr Monika Böhm, lead author of the study.

Photo of a group of young gharials at breeding centre

Classified as Critically Endangered, the gharial is under threat from habitat loss

Reptiles are often associated with extreme habitats and tough environmental conditions, so it is easy to assume that they will be fine in our changing world,” she said. “However, many species are very highly specialised in terms of habitat use and the climatic conditions they require for day to day functioning. This makes them particularly sensitive to environmental changes.”

Reptile conservation priorities

One of the aims of this study was to provide an indicator of reptile biodiversity that can be compared with other species groups and monitored over time. The findings of the study will also help scientists to decide which species should be priorities for conservation action.

Gaps in knowledge and shortcomings in effective conservation actions need to be addressed to ensure that reptiles continue to thrive around the world,” said Ben Collen, Head of ZSL’s Indicators and Assessments Unit and one of the co-authors of the study. “These findings provide a shortcut to allow important conservation decisions to be made as soon as possible and firmly place reptiles on the conservation map.”

Photo of female Antiguan racer

The Critically Endangered Antiguan racer is one of the world’s rarest snakes

According to Philip Bowles, Coordinator of the Snake and Lizard Red List Authority of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, “The findings sound alarm bells about the state of these species and the growing threats that they face. Tackling the identified threats, which include habitat loss and over-harvesting, are key conservation priorities in order to reverse the declines in these reptiles.”

 

Read more on this story at BBC – World’s reptiles at risk of extinction and The Guardian – One in five reptile species face extinction – study.

View photos and videos of reptiles on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Feb 12
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Guest Blog: Leatherback turtles with Professor Brendan Godley

Back in November, we caught up with Professor Brendan Godley, one of the world’s leading sea turtle experts, to talk about his focal species group, and in particular to learn about the fascinating and charismatic green turtle. Since then, Brendan has been involved in some great work with the giants of the marine turtle world, the leatherbacks, so we thought we’d have another chat with him to find out more!

Professor Brendan Godley

Professor Brendan Godley

Hi Brendan, welcome back to the ARKive blog! So, tell us a little bit about leatherbacks…what makes them special?

Leatherbacks are a one-off. They are the biggest of the turtles, and they don’t have a hard outer shell, instead having a leathery skin coating.  Not cold blooded in the strictest sense, they can swim across ocean basins into cool waters as far north as Iceland and Canada. Amazingly, they manage all of this on a diet of jellyfish. They are even found in UK waters every year.

What are the main threats to leatherbacks, and where are current leatherback conservation efforts being focused?

Although leatherbacks have traditionally been harvested for meat and eggs, this has largely desisted around the world. The major concern nowadays is the incidental capture of leatherbacks in longlines and gillnets. Although research into incidental capture originally focused on industrial fisheries, work around the world by excellent NGOs such as Prodelphinus is showing that artisanal or small-scale fisheries are currently a major issue. While these vessels and their gear are not individually large, there are so many of them that they add up to a great deal of fishing effort . These fisheries often focus on fishing along the coastal shelf or in the nearby deeper waters which are productive and are being shown to be very much frequented by leatherbacks. In many instances, extreme poverty further compounds the situation, often leading to a poor result for the turtles.

I hear that you are currently involved in an exciting bit of leatherback research involving tagging and tracking…can you tell us a bit more about that?

For the last few years, supported by the Darwin Initiative, we have been involved with a range of partners in Gabon, the country that hosts the world’s largest nesting population of leatherbacks. Although we have tracked these animals in the past, showing them to go as far as South Africa and Uruguay, we are currently tracking a group to assess their habitat use at the nesting site in Gabon, gain insights into just how many clutches they lay, and, of course, to find out where they go when they are finished. These animals can be followed live on the excellent website run by SEATURTLE.org. There you can subscribe to daily updates and have maps sent to your e-mail.

You told us a rather amusing story last time about a student almost getting buried by a green turtle during fieldwork! Any funny stories to report from your time working with leatherbacks?!

No real funny ones, but as I outlined in the green turtle blog, my formative experiences with sea turtles were in Trinidad in 1989 as part of a student expedition. There were great experiences to be had but at that time there was a great deal of illegal killing of leatherbacks for meat. This really got me interested in conservation and I think it was a pivotal point in my life. I returned to the island in 1991, and in a small way helped the Government of Trinidad and Tobago extend their surveys, which resulted in the growth of a great force for good, the NGO Nature Seekers.

Brendan Godley 1989

Brendan in Trinidad in 1989

Have you ever had to use your vet skills on a sea turtle in distress?

In my time working in the Mediterranean I have unfortunately had to put some severely injured animals to sleep that had been wounded after interactions with fisheries. More often, however, my vet pathology skills have been involved, carrying out post-mortems on dead animals including a leatherback which stranded in UK waters. The post-mortem took me right inside one of nature’s giants. The amount and redness of the blood was truly memorable, as was the amount of blubber – just like a marine mammal.

Why is it important to conserve sea turtles?

Although many populations are starting to rebound, others are still in decline. This is particularly true for leatherbacks in the Indo-Pacific. To me, a good enough reason to act is that it would simply be a great shame if these magnificent animals were lost from any major part of their range. In addition, sea turtles can act as useful flagship species for coastal development, and at near natural high population levels they undoubtedly play important ecological roles as predators, prey, fertilisers of dune systems and, in some cases, as habitat for a diversity of species that live on the surface of their bodies. Although not a panacea for sea turtle conservation, wildlife tourism revenue, such as that generated by the successful Nature Seekers project, is clearly a dividend in some cases.

What is your favourite leatherback photo on ARKive?

Well, I think I am going to cheat again and choose multiple photos. The one of the turtle wrapped in fishing nets is particularly evocative and sums up what I believe to be the major threat to this and many other marine vertebrate species.

Leatherback turtle image

Leatherback turtle caught in fishing net

For personality, including highlighting the jellyfish-handling beak, I like this one:

Leatherback turtle image

Male leatherback turtle in open ocean

Finally, for its sheer quirkiness, I would highlight the one where the catfish is predating the hatchling.

Baby leatherback turtle image

Baby leatherback turtle being eaten by a catfish

Thanks, Brendan!

If you enjoyed this blog and love sea turtles, then why not join us on Wednesday 20th February for a Twitter chat with Brendan! Pop online at 15:00 UK time when Brendan will be taking over the ARKive Twitter account to answer all your sea turtle-related questions! It’ll be turtley awesome!

Feb 9
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Endangered Species of the Week: Golden lancehead

Photo of female golden lancehead flicking tongue

Golden lancehead (Bothropoides insularis)

Species: Golden lancehead (Bothropoides insularis)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The golden lancehead is unique to a tiny island off the coast of Brazil, where has a total range of just 0.43 square kilometres.

The golden lancehead is a highly venomous pitviper with heat-sensitive pits on its face which help it to detect prey. Although its mainland relatives feed mainly on rodents, this island species has switched to a diet of birds. To prevent its prey from flying away before the snake’s highly toxic venom can take effect, the golden lancehead holds it in its mouth after biting it. This snake is unusual in that it appears to exist as three genders: males, females, and ‘intersex’ females, which have both female and male reproductive organs.

The golden lancehead has a small population which is entirely restricted to one tiny island, making it particularly vulnerable to any threats. Its forest habitat is being lost due to clearance and burning, and the snakes themselves are collected illegally for the wild animal trade. Conservation efforts are underway to study and monitor the golden lancehead, and there are plans to breed it in captivity and research the potential medicinal uses of its venom. Educational programmes and more effective enforcement may also help protect this fascinating snake.

Find out more about conservation efforts for the golden lancehead at Neotropical Snakes Conservation.

Find out more about snakes on the ARKive snakes page.

See images and videos of the golden lancehead on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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