Cayman Islands: Darwin Initiative Project Supports Need To Reduce Illegal Take Of Turtles

Recently while on patrol, Department of Environment (DoE) Chief Conservation Officer Mark Orr discovered signs indicating that a nesting green turtle was taken illegally in West Bay. The adult female green turtle apparently was dragged off when she came onto the beach to lay eggs.

'This incident was discovered on 6 October. This summer, DoE volunteers also discovered parts of a slaughtered loggerhead turtle in North Side', Mr Orr said. 'We don't believe these are isolated incidents; we believe other, undetected incidents have also taken place'.

DoE staff say that results from new and ongoing research show the urgency of reducing the illegal take of green turtles from Cayman's small nesting population. The research involves a night-time tagging project, funded by the UK Darwin Initiative and launched in June 2014, and a daytime beach monitoring programme that began in 1999.

By cross referencing the new night-time tagging data with information gleaned from the department's longstanding daytime monitoring efforts, the DoE is now refining estimates of the number of green turtles in the nesting population, and better estimating the contribution of the Cayman Turtle Farm to wild nesting populations, with the goal of protecting nesting turtles.

The purpose of the daytime monitoring is to establish the number of turtle nests laid each year, in order to indicate population trends. Female green turtles can each lay up to six nests per season; and they typically nest every two to three years, rather than every year.

DoE Research Officer Dr Janice Blumenthal noted that serious concerns for the population are warranted despite the increase in nest numbers since 1999, when daytime monitoring of beaches in Grand Cayman commenced.

'We've seen an increase from a low of only one nest in 1999, to a high of 181 nests in 2012', she said.

However, while the daytime monitoring establishes the number of nests each year, it only provides one side of the story – it does not allow a precise determination of the number of females nesting. This is where the tagging of turtles proves useful.

'The true number of turtles nesting each year in Grand Cayman was unknown until the Department began its Darwin-funded, night-time tagging programme', Dr Blumenthal said.

'We know that the 131 green turtle nests found in Grand Cayman so far this year were not laid by 131 turtles', she explained. 'Our challenge was to tag and individually identify nesting green turtles to determine how many females laid these nests.'

DoE staff and volunteers tagged 21 green turtles in 2014 and, while the research is ongoing, preliminary results suggest that these turtles represent the vast majority of this year's green turtle nesting population, with each turtle laying up to six nests.

This indicates that the illegal take of turtles poses a serious problem, because the overall population size is extremely low. 'It's clear from our preliminary results that populations are even smaller than previously thought, and thus more vulnerable to threats such as illegal take', Dr Blumenthal said.

She pointed out that losing even one turtle means six fewer nests – and, as turtles lay more than 100 eggs per nest, this means 600 fewer eggs in that turtle's nesting year. This reduction affects the population for every year that the turtle could have continued to nest.

Mr Orr said that, because of the very low numbers of nesting turtles on our beaches, DoE considers illegal take of turtles to be one of the most serious conservation offences. Past cases of this nature have resulted in fines and prison sentences, and any equipment including vehicles and boats used in the offence may be confiscated by the courts.

Anyone with information regarding illegal take of turtles is asked to make a report to Mr Orr by calling 916-4271; 911; or Crime Stoppers at 800–TIPS.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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