Marine Turtles in KwaZulu Natal - Threats

Crisis situation

By the early 1960s marine turtles along the Maputaland coastline had been hunted almost to extinction. Targeted for their meat, eggs, oil, bones and shells, the turtles were facing imminent extinction. Reports of massive numbers of turtles being slaughtered reached the Natal Parks Board (NPB) in 1963, and it was clear that urgent action was required before the last turtle ever came ashore to nest on the region's magnificent shoreline.
Desperate measures
Under the leadership of Dr George Hughes, the NPB launched an intensive rescue operation, immediately mounting shore patrols to count nestings and tag females and hatchlings. This marked the beginning of what is now globally acclaimed as one of the planet's leading turtle monitoring projects.

Only 5 female leatherbacks recorded nesting
Reflecting the dire circumstances of the time, only 5 female leatherbacks were recorded nesting during the 1966/67 season (mid-October to mid-March). Recognizing the need to work with the local community, the NPB immediately began engaging and working with local villagers - a move that had an immediate and long lasting impact on everyone concerned - and the turtle populations themselves.

Current threats and challenges
Every life cycle phase of marine turtles is impacted upon by human activities. Turtles use both coastal areas and the high seas, where humans' activities are ever increasing. Therefore, no part of their habitat is safe for them.

They are under extreme pressure from poor coastal zone practices and habitat destruction, direct harvesting for food and curios, and are caught as bycatch in local and international fisheries. The most serious threats are present at various life cycle stages:

  • Nesting - harvesting (egg collecting, and slaughtering for meat), and habitat disturbance or destruction through coastal development, sand mining, and beach driving.
  • Home ranges (coral reefs, seas grass beds, open oceans) - These are disturbed or destroyed - as 'bycatch' in bad fishery practices, by pollution and global warming.
  • Migrational Movements - During migrations the turtles are threatened with being caught, also as bycatch, in trawl or drift nets, and long lines.

Since the early 2000s the turtles are facing increasing pressure from tourism - with more visitors and locals going onto the beaches at critical nesting times. This requires more sophisticated management, education and beach protection to protect the turtles and their nests.

Leatherback turtle (<i>Dermochelys coriacea</i>) caught in a net. After days of ... / ©: WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER
Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) caught in a net. After days of struggle, it finally drowned after resurfacing a few times.
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER

In 1996, Mexican authorities seized a truck containing 500,000 olive ridley eggs collected illegally from an important marine turtle rookery...

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