Where the rainforest meets the ocean, hippos surf in the sea and elephants, buffalo and gorillas all graze on the beach. The coastline of the central African country of Gabon is considered one of the last truly wild stretches on the continent. A new study of this region has revealed that it is also home to the largest Atlantic breeding colony of the olive ridley sea turtle. Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, this finding has global significance.
A team of researchers from Exeter University undertook a mammoth survey, walking just under 600 kilometers (372 miles) of the country's coastline to count the number of olive ridley turtle nests buried in the sand. They estimate that there could be up to 9,800 turtle nests per year, making this one of the most important rookery sites for this species in the world.
Gabon is home to four species of sea turtle: the leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley. The olive ridley is one of the smallest species, and also considered one of the most abundant. Despite this, the IUCN still considers them to be “vulnerable,” the category just before “endangered," because they are experiencing a population decline.
During the latest assessment of endangered species, the IUCN couldn’t calculate the status of the turtles in the eastern Atlantic as they consider the area to be “data deficient,” even though the population found in the region is thought to be one of the biggest. It was due to this that the team of researchers set out to count their nests and fill this gap in the data.
“There have been increasing calls for improved sea turtle data at a local and regional scale to help inform conservation assessments,” said Professor Brendan Godley, who co-authored the paper published in Biological Conservation. “Our study goes some way to providing the data needed and will help us understand sea turtle distribution, density, population trends and threats as well as allowing the people of Gabon to manage their marine resources more sustainably.”
The country's beaches are covered in logs thought to be worth an estimated $11.1 million. Credit: t r / Flickr CCBY-NC 2.0
The country already has an impressive track record when it comes to managing their natural resources. It’s thought that Gabon still retains around four-fifths of its forests, and 10 years ago, the president set aside 10% of the country as protected areas, a commitment that has grown to around 13% today. This ranks Gabon as one of the countries with the greatest amount of its land mass under protection.
Last year, Gabon went a step further by announcing that it will create a new network of marine parks, putting up to 23% of its territorial waters under protection. It is hoped that this will benefit up to 20 species of whale and dolphin that live and breed in the country's waters, the largest leatherback turtle breeding colony in the world, and of course the olive ridleys.
The major threat to the turtles in Gabon is that the country's beaches are littered with an estimated 11,000 logs that have escaped downstream from the foresters. These stop the turtles from getting up the beach to lay their eggs, often forcing them to lay below the tidal line, or simply trapping and killing them.