Help for the Hawksbill in Belize

Survival in nature is often as much a factor of chance as it is adaption to a changing environment. Such is the case anyway in this one tiny Central American country. The Belizean coastline is covered by miles of beaches, sand berms and mangrove forests.

While most of the coastline is protected by its inaccessibility, many of the high sand beaches are eyed by developers as future resorts, or by locals as a source of food and materials washed up from the sea. But to biologist Greg Smith and his local assistant Richard Slusher, a chance encounter on one sandy beach is a matter of survival for one of the world's last great ocean reptiles.

Back in 1990, while surveying the Belizean coastal zone for sea turtle nesting sites, Smith, an US expatriate studying sea turtles in Belize, chanced upon a 8 km stretch of beach with nearly 200 hawksbill nests. The largest previously reported nesting site in Belize had only 16 nests. The Hawksbill is the most endangered sea turtle in the Caribbean.

Smith believes this new sight is significant not just for Belize, but for the entire region. "This stretch of beach could rank third in the Caribbean in terms of size" reports Smith, "behind Manabique Peninsula in Guatemala and the beach at La Aguada in the Yucatan, Mexico. There are very few places where you can find concentrations of more than 100 nests".

Sea Turtles have roamed the tropical and subtropical seas for over 100 million years. Once inhabiting marshes and swamps, only seven species of these now ocean dwelling reptiles have survived and adapted for life in the sea. Where and how they live in the open water is still one of the great mysteries of sea turtle biology, but at some point during their lifetime, these ocean creatures haul their bulk up unto sandy shores to dig a hole and deposit 60 to 250 eggs. Once complete, the female covers the eggs and disguises the nest by throwing sand over it with her massive flippers - then she lumbers to the sea and disappears in the darkness. That's when the predators move in.

"Polecats (skunks) and fox will eat four or five eggs each night;" says Richard Slusher, Smith's assistant recruited from the nearby village of Gales Point. "But the raccoons will destroy the entire clutch in a single feeding." Funded by the US Fish and Wildlife service since 1991, Smith and Slusher take turns hiking the beach, looking for the distinctive tracks left in the sand when the turtles come ashore. Once found, the trail often leads to a nest, which the men mark by carving dates and numbers on fallen coconut fronds stuck in the sand. The nest is then protected from predators by such high tech materials as dead sticks and old fishing nets.

"When we find a nest, we actually dig it up," explains Slusher, "We lay a fence of sticks around the eggs, then place the netting over the sticks before covering everything with sand. The net is three feet deep in the sand. Even a strong digger like a polecat is deterred by the net."

Richard Slusher releases turtle

The men return to inspect the nest 60 days after laying and help the 40-45mm long turtles to dig out. Digging out of sand is just the beginning for the young reptiles. When less than one inch tall, the refuse of plastic and glass on the beach becomes unconquerable blockades. Smith and Slusher assist the turtles to the sea where the law of nature takes over. Magnificent frigate birds and seagulls cruise overhead, picking the young off the surface, while barracuda and schools of jacks lay a murderous gauntlet below. It has been estimated that only one in a thousand survive to reproduce again.

Scientists estimate that the hawksbill turtle requires twenty years to reach reproductive age. Some sea turtles return to the same stretch of beach where they began their lives, to nest, sometimes 4 or 5 times during a single season. When Smith first discovered the nesting site, he found 100% predation on the nest by racoons. Last year, not a single nest was destroyed, and Smith and Slusher helped over one thousand turtles to a headstart on life.

On many of the other nesting beaches in Belize, most of the turtle egg predation is by local fishermen, but fortunately, the people of Gales Point have not been harvesting at this new sight. Turtle eggs are protected by law in Belize during the nesting season, traditionally between June and August, but new evidence suggest that the nesting season is longer. "We found the first nest laid in April last year, " says Smith " and Richard found the last one on the 9th of October." Smith successfully lobbied the Belizean Government, with support from numerous environmental groups in the country, to extend protection to year around for turtle eggs, but to protect the adult turtles also. The Hawksbill turtle is now completely protected in Belizean waters.

"About 20 adult turtles nest on this beach," says Smith, "most of the turtles nesting in Belize come to this beach, and their continued survival depends on the people of Gales Point. Turtles leaving the beach today won't be back for 20 years, but hopefully, the next generation will be there to see them and help protect them."

The chances for survival of the young turtles near Gales Point are greater because of a chance encounter. Researcher Greg Smith and Local Richard Slusher are working to ensure that the 100 million year odyssey of the sea turtle will continue to the next generation, at least in Belize.

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