The rarest turtle in the world is seriously threatened with extinction

The population is seriously threatened due to the intense collection of eggs, especially by the indigenous population

by Lorenzo Ciotti
The rarest turtle in the world is seriously threatened with extinction

Kemp's ridley sea turtle is critically endangered, and is the rarest sea turtle. Kemp's turtles generally prefer warm waters, but sometimes they range as far north as New Jersey. They migrate through the Gulf of Mexico and Florida waters and are often encountered in waters off Louisiana.

Their range includes the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Almost all females return each year to a single beach, Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, to lay their eggs. In their wanderings, some specimens even reach the coasts of Ireland.

The population is seriously threatened due to the intense collection of eggs, especially by the indigenous population. The dramatic decline was realized when, in 1978, it was found that there were only 500 females nesting in an entire year on the beach of Rancho Nuevo, compared to 42,000 in a single day documented by a 1947 film.

The measures taken to however, protecting the beach and the nests was not enough to improve the demographic fate of this population. Interaction with fisheries, especially shrimp, the oil extraction industry, coastal development and light pollution severely affect the nesting beach.

As in other species of sea turtles, ingestion of garbage, climate change and accumulations of heavy metals also damage all vital stages. Currently, the death of these turtles from entanglement in fishing gear, water pollution and habitat loss are the main factors leading to the rapid decline of this species.

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle has protected status in both the United States and Mexico. The TED or Turtle Exclusion Device was innovated for use in fishing practices to allow turtles to escape capture by trawlers and other fishing gear.

Captive breeding of these turtles has also been carried out, and in turn, the reintroduction of these captive-bred populations. In September 2007, Corpus Christi wildlife operators recorded a record 128 Kemp's turtles nesting on Texas beaches, including 81 on North Padre Island and 4 on Mustang Island.

That same year, conservationists released 10,594 baby Kemp's tortoises off the Texas coast. Despite being protected, this turtle is very popular in Mexico, where it is exploited for leather, used in the manufacture of boots, and for food.

In 1979, after the Ixtoc 1 oil rig accident, which released millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, some Kemp's tortoises were transported from Mexico to safer areas. In recent years, the environmental disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is also threatening a wide variety of marine creatures, from dolphins to blue crabs.

As of April 30, 2010, ten days after the incident, 156 sea turtles had died, most of them Kemp's turtles. Due to the oil spill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration banned fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. To rescue Kemp's tortoises on Grand Isle, biologists from the Louisiana Department of Nature and Fisheries and government agents worked hard.

Of all the endangered species that frequent the waters of the Gulf, Kemp's turtle is the only one that nests only in this region. In an effort to save the species from the devastating effects of the Deepwater Horizon accident, scientists began harvesting eggs from nests to incubate them artificially.

In a nest located along the coast of peninsular Florida, 67 eggs were collected on June 26, 2010, and immediately transported to a temperature-controlled warehouse at NASA's Kennedy Space Center; despite all the treatments, only 56 managed to hatch.

State and federal officials then planned to collect thousands of eggs in an attempt to save them. The plan was to collect about 70,000 eggs from turtle nests located along the beaches of Alabama and Florida before they hatch, to keep the hatchlings from making their way to oil-ravaged areas. On July 15, 2010, there were approximately 1,100 eggs at the NASA space center hatchery site.