iSimangaliso – Over half a century of sea turtle protection

22 Jan 2018

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park includes one of only a handful of marine World Heritage Sites globally that protects the beach nesting sites of sea turtles. Within the Park’s 220km shoreline, and beyond the transfrontier boundary with Mozambique’s Maputo Special Reserve, lie the southernmost African nesting grounds for the loggerhead and endangered leatherback turtles.

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The giant leatherback turtle can weigh as much as one tonne. This population, which is genetically unique (distinct from those in the Caribbean), is more endangered than rhinos.

This annual miracle of nature plays out each year between November and March as female turtles return to the same beach where they were born. The most recent science shows that leatherbacks return after 15 years while loggerheads take 36 years before laying. At the base of the undulating dunes, they dig deep nests that they fill with scores of ping pong ball-sized eggs that herald the future survival of the species. With an ultimate survival rate of less than 5 per 1000, this most fragile of life cycles needs all the human protection possible. iSimangaliso is proud of the more than five decades of continuous protection and research that has taken place under the auspices of conservation managers Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which still receives the highest priority. Monitoring is in place in the area of highest density which is between the Kosi Bay/Mozambique border to Mabibi.

Turtle tours are a great tourist attraction in the Park and the general consensus is that the further north one travels, the more likely one is to see turtles laying or hatching. In the Kosi Bay section of iSimangaliso, community guides take nightly walking tours where one has an excellent chance of seeing several of these animals. At Sodwana Bay and St Lucia, vehicle tours take tourists onto the beach for a few hours at low tide. They have also reported a very good season.

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Sodwana Bay licensed operator Ufudu Tours took this video clip of the first hatchlings spotted on that stretch of beach in the first week of January. Tour operators have reported a bumper turtle nesting season so far – excellent news for visitors and turtles alike!
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The warm Indian Ocean waters off iSimangaliso’s shores are home to five of the world’s seven turtle species: The green, hawksbill, Olive Ridley, loggerhead and leatherback turtles. A number of injured and rehabilitated turtles have been successfully released back into this haven with the most recent being two hawksbill turtles in November 2017 at Mabibi in the Coastal Forest Section.
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One of the mainstays of the World Heritage Site has been the ongoing research into turtle behavior and characteristics that continues to inform management of these species. A team led by Dr Ronel Nel under the auspices of the Nelson Mandela University has been engaged in several aspects of turtle research for many years. Each summer they base themselves at Bhanga Nek in the Coastal Forest section of iSimangaliso to continue their vital work. Here Dr Nel is assisted in taking measurements and reading identification tags by community turtle guide, Simanga Mageba and geneticist Professor Lorenz Hauser.

According to Dr Nel, the main activities currently undertaken are:

  1. Ongoing monitoring to maintain continuity and integrity with the previous 50+ years of data collection;
  2. Monitoring the success of nests: each nest that researchers work with (random sample) gets followed through the season to assess predator interference (badgers, water mongoose, monitor lizards, ghost crabs, over wash, erosion, sand smothering) and ultimately hatching and emergence success. On average, iSimangaliso has a hatching and emergence success of 70-75% for each species which is very good by international standards;
  3. Epibiont work – Each turtle functions as a microhabitat carrying a number of species that live on the backs of turtles, some of them being almost exclusive to turtles. Barnacles can be used to track the health of the population. Other organisms, like amphipods and isopods, or worms living in shell grooves, may indicate the foraging area/habitat of turtles;
  4. Turtle hatchling fitness and females sizes, which have implications for the population dynamics of the species;
  5. The effect of temperature on hatchlings, which could indicate inter alia the effects of climate change on the population.

Says iSimangaliso’s Manager – Development and Planning, Nerosha Govender: “In science, there always seem to be far more questions than answers however the consistent monitoring that has been in place in iSimangaliso has unquestionably contributed to the fact that the Park still boasts healthy turtle populations as well as a world-class visitor experience.”

Media enquiries should be directed to Slindile Msweli at sli@isimangaliso.com or on 079 632 0363.