Univesity of Exeter scientists that led an international team of experts from three continents’ to Gabon have claimed that the leatherback turtles is under threat. Based at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, in Penryn Cornwall, experts working with colleagues from the US, France and Gabon have gathered information that they hope will conserve, the endangered species.

"We knew that Gabon was an important nesting site for leatherback turtles but until now had little idea of the size of the population or its global ranking. We are now focusing our efforts on working with local agencies to coordinate conservation efforts to ensure this population is protected against the threats from illegal fisheries, nest poaching, pollution and habitat disturbance, and climate change," says Dr Matthew Witt, Lead author of the paper published in the academic journal Biological Conservation.

Sarah Hoyle, speaking on behalf of the University of Exeter said: "During three nesting seasons between 2002 and 2007, the team’s members carried out the most comprehensive survey of marine turtles ever conducted in Gabon. This involved aerial surveys along Gabon’s 600 km (372 miles) coast."

The research, which involved country-wide land and aerial surveys, has estimated that up to 41,373 female turtles nest on the beaches of Gabon. The study also revealed that 79 percent of the nesting occurs within National Parks and other protected areas providing hope that Gabon can continue to be one of the most important habitats for the threatened turtle.

"These findings show the critical importance of protected areas to maintain populations of sea turtles. Gabon should be commended for creating a network of National Parks in 2002 that have provided a sanctuary for this endangered species as well as other rare wildlife," said Dr Angela Formia of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and a co-author of the paper.

Student Information

Gabon is French speaking and situated on the west coast of Africa.

Leatherbacks are the largest species of sea turtle in the world and can reach up to two metres (6.5 feet) in length and 540kg (1190 pounds) in weight.

Unlike other sea turtles the leatherbacks shell is made-up of a mosaic of small bones covered by firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges.

Leatherbacks are the most widely spread marine turtles, and are found in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, particularly in tropical regions.

Leatherbacks are the deepest diving of all sea turtles. The deepest recorded dive is 1.2 kilometres (3/4 mile), which is slightly more than the deepest known dive of a sperm whale.

Leatherbacks are strong swimmers and have been known to cross oceans in search of their jellyfish prey.

As with other reptiles, the sex of leatherbacks is determined by the temperature of eggs during incubation. With leatherbacks, temperatures above 29 degrees centigrade (84 degrees Fahrenheit) will result in female hatchlings.

The study was carried out by the University of Exeter, Wildlife Conservation Society, University of Florence, IUCN-France, PROTOMAC (Gabon), CNDIO-Gabon, IBONGA-ACPE (Gabon), Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (Gabon), Gabon Environnment, Aventures Sans Frontières (Gabon) and WWF-Gabon.