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Kemp Ridley: The Rarest Turtle

The Kemp Ridley turtle has long been the most mysterious of turtles. In the mid-20th century the turtle pioneer Archie Carr and many other biologists searched high and low trying to find where these turtles nested. Talking to villagers and fisherman alike, nobody could find a nesting beach. Many biologists concluded that the kemp ridley was not even a ‘real species’ because no one had seen it lay eggs, some called it the mule of the sea, being a hybrid of two other species perhaps. Slightly larger and heavier than its cousin the Olive Ridley, the kemp is the rarest and most endangered of all sea turtles.

Kemp Ridley’s are the only turtle to be named after a person. Richard M. Kemp, a Florida fisherman and naturalist who in 1880 sent a specimen of a small local sea turtle to a famous herpetologist Samuel Garman. Garmen described it as a new species and out of gratitude named it Lepidochelys kempii. As the species was declared the challenge of investigating its biology began, and that meant finding its nesting beach. The search for the Kemps nesting beach was like trying to find the Shangri-La of the turtle world: a mysterious place that might not even exist.

In the 1940s Andres Herrera, a young Mexican heard rumours of a mass nesting beach along the gulf coast of Mexico, he was hopeful this could be the first finding of a kemp nesting beach. The arribada, was supposed to occur near rancho Nuevo in Tamaulipas. He took to the skies in his plane with his friend a cameraman. For 23 days he flew up and down the 90 mile stretch of coast. He saw nothing. On the 24th day his friend the photographer got ill. But he decided to make one more trip on his own. Luckily he spotted a large group of turtles on a beach and quickly landed the plane and began to film the event. The film shows thousands of turtle at different stages of the nesting process, but giving that distinct ridley dance. After he got home he showed the video to friends and family but that was it. Not until 13 years after in 1960 a marine biologist Dr Henry Hildebrand heard about this film. He was amazed by the film he watched. The mystery was finally solved, the arribada was that of kemp ridley turtles.

Unfortunetly by the mid 1960’s when he actually visited the beach there were only around 2000 females, much less than depicted in the video footage. The eggs and females had been ravished by poachers. In 1966 the government sent scientists there to start a kemp ridley protection programme. Even with the help of the marines conservation was difficult and less than a third of the eggs were saved by these efforts. People continued taking eggs and the rising shrimp trawling industry continued drowning turtles. The mystery of nesting had been solved however, the vast populations of years gone by had vanished. The kemp ridley population had become just a fraction of what it used to be, and still remains that way today despite heavy conservation efforts.

Kemp RIdley’s are restricted to the waters in the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes feeding up the coast of the US. Males stay and feed near the breeding grounds as females spread out over the gulf. The main bulk of nesting occurs between 29 miles of beach, but occasionally solitary nesters can be found elsewhere. On average females nest every 1.5 years and lay 3 clutches of eggs, resting 20-28 days between arribadas. Each clutch numbers about 110 eggs. Like their cousins the olives they take about 45 mins to an hour to complete their nesting process, which includes the ridley “dance”. Very few nests incubate naturally, since 1978 biologists have moved most nests to fenced corrals to protect the eggs and maximise hatchling. Keeping track on population sex ratios.

Extreme fishing and harvesting pressure meant that by the 1980’s fewer than 300 nesting females came ashore each year, hardly am arribada. In 1986 the IUCN declared the Kemp one of the 12 most endangered species in the world. The population shrank to less than 550 adult females in the entire Gulf of Mexico. The future looked very bleak for this beautiful dancing turtle.

Slowly however conservation efforts turned the tide and by 2003 the number of nesting kemp ridleys on the Mexican beaches near Rancho Nuevo reached around 2,500. Now the population has risen to around 5000, a remarkable recovery but still nothing like the numbers of before. The US and Mexico partnered up to save the turtle, they heavily protected nesting beaches, implanted many more TED’s and started head start (now seen to be controversial due to effects on the turtles ‘frenzy period’) and hatchery programs. At least 50,000 hatchlings entered the sea at Rancho Nuevo a year from 1980 – 1990, each young turtle needing 11-16 years to mature. Giving the turtle a real chance. All the effort from the 80’s came to tuition in the 2000’s when those hatchlings reached maturity.

The combination of beach protection, greater hatchling production and trawler regulations seem to have done the trick. Although this could be a conservation success story the population is still a 10th of that seen in the original movie. This species is still critically endangered. More biologists and more volunteers are needed to go to Mexico to walk the beaches, find and protect clutches of eggs, monitor nesting females, and to work with local communities and schools. TED’s are key to protecting juveniles and adults in the ocean. Educating fisherman and strong law enforcement are essential components of the effort to conserve the world’s rarest sea turtle.

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