Hawksbill Sea Turtles
Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are named for their narrow head and hooked beak. These turtles are 25-35 inches long and weigh 100-150 pounds. Hawksbill sea turtles do not reach sexual maturity until they are 20-40 years old. Females typically lay eggs once every few years. They will lay up to 700 eggs in a single season, usually in a few different clutches. Like all sea turtles, Hawksbills lay their eggs on beaches, and babies head into the ocean as soon as they are hatched. On average, they are only 15 grams when hatched. Sadly, less than 1 of every 1,000 eggs laid will hatch and survive to adulthood.
Hawksbill sea turtles spend most of their lives in tropical coastal waters mostly around coral reefs in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. Their main food source is sponges found in these coral reefs. An adult Hawksbill eats approximately 1,200 pounds of sponges every year. They will also eat jellyfish, algae, and sea anemones.
Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered, largely due to high poaching rates. Their numbers have declined approximately 80% in the last century. Poachers are usually uneducated and desperate for a way to provide for themselves and their families. Also due to their lack of education, they often do not know much about the animals they are hunting, including how endangered they are, how they support the ecosystem, or even the fact that wild animals can feel pain. If more people had access to high quality education, they would not feel the need to enter poaching and would have a better understanding of wildlife.
Sea turtles are often hunted for their shells, which are used to make jewelry and ornaments. These products are most popular in East Asia. They are illegal, but there is very little enforcement of the laws and many consumers are unaware of the sea turtles’ endangered status and their ecological importance.
Traditional Asian medicine calls for the use of animals’ body parts for various ailments. This is a major cause for high poaching rates of some species including sea turtles. Hawksbill sea turtles are hunted for oil extracted from their muscles, which is used to treat integumentary, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases. These myths have no evidence of being true. Teaching people about the falsities of these beliefs and alternative treatments would significantly decrease the demand for these animals, therefore reducing poaching. Sea turtles are also hunted for meat, and their eggs are also taken for food.
Hawksbill sea turtles help to maintain the ecosystem of coral reefs. They consume large amounts of sponges, which allows fish to access other food sources in the reefs. Hawksbill sea turtles also help to support local economies by increasing tourism. Many people visit coastal areas for a chance to see these turtles in person.
Fortunately, conservation programs are having some success in protecting Hawksbill sea turtles. Conservation education programs began by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have led to a decreased rate of poaching in Panama. Their program includes outreach with Native Indians, the addition of conservation education in schools, and engagement with local government officials. The project has been successful at combating hunting turtles for their shells and oil, collecting eggs for food, and trapping turtles at sea.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is also helping to protect Hawksbill sea turtles. They are developing job opportunities in Malaysia and teaching people there about protecting the sea turtles. Most people who poach turn to it as a last resort when they have no other options to make money for their families, so creating jobs helps to reduce poaching rates. WWF also trains people from the coastal areas where Hawksbill sea turtles nest to become rangers to patrol their nesting areas. This helps by both providing protection to the turtles and giving the rangers a good job opportunity so they do not turn to poaching themselves.
A conservation awareness project run by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the creation of a wildlife refuge have led to decreased poaching rates in Nicaragua. The number of Hawksbill sea turtles that nested there in 2014 was over double what it was in 2000.
Education should be used more in the fight against poaching. We should support educational programs in zoos and aquariums, add conservation education to school curriculum, support educational programs that teach against myths of traditional Asian medicine, and fund education efforts in developing nations. This will help to keep people informed on the threatened species and the dangers of poaching, and provide more opportunities for people in developing nations to find alternative work. While there has been improvements in Hawksbill sea turtle conservation lately, they are still critically endangered. If we do not further reduce or eliminate poaching rates, we risk losing an incredible animal species during our lifetime.
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