Leatherback Sea Turtle Comeback in Caribbean: Endangered Species Repopulates Beaches

First Posted: May 20, 2013 09:39 AM EDT

Endangered leatherback sea turtles are making a comeback in the Caribbean. While poachers once combed beaches in order to ransack the turtles' buried eggs, residents are now stepping up to protect these sea creatures.

The largest turtles on Earth, leatherback sea turtles can grow up to seven feet long and exceed 2,000 pounds. They're currently the last, living representatives of a family of turtles that traces its evolutionary roots back more than 100 million years. Unlike their reptilian relatives, they're able to maintain warm body temperatures even in cold water by using a unique set of adaptations that allow them to generate and retain body heat.

These creatures are largely impacted by human threats. Poachers steal their eggs and hack adult turtles to pieces in order to sell their shells and meat. Bright lights on the beaches from hotels can also confuse hatchlings that emerge from their underground nests, causing them to move away from the ocean rather than toward it.

In the case of Trinidad, though, this particular scenario has changed. The turtles have now become integral to a thriving tourist trade. People travel from across the globe to witness the tiny leatherback turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests on a stretch of beach at Grande Riviere and scurry toward the ocean.

In fact, the number of leatherback turtles that nest on this particular stretch of beach has increased drastically. About 500 females nest each night during the peak season in May and June. Scientists have even announced that this beach is the most densely nested site for leatherbacks in the entire world, according to Bloomberg Business Week.

"It's sometimes hard remembering that leatherbacks are actually endangered," said Nicholas Alexander, a tour guide at the site, in an interview with ABC News.

It's not just Trinidad that helping conserve leatherback sea turtles, though. Puerto Rico announced earlier this year that is was planning on protecting a swathe of land that covers 2,900 acres of pristine beaches, featuring ecosystems that range from subtropical dry forest to tropical rainforest. The effort could help bolster the population of sea turtles in the area, and the beaches are likely to become a center for ecotourism rather than development, according to BBC News.

With the continued efforts to help protect areas where these turtles nest, it's likely that the leatherback population will begin to rebound. They'll need all the help they can get as temperatures rise, drying out beaches and causing significant issues for turtle eggs.

"These leatherbacks are the world's last living dinosaurs," said Alexander in an interview with Bloomberg Business Week. "We have to protect them for the next generation."

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