Poaching threatens turtle population

Poaching of nesting turtles on Grand Cayman’s beaches is putting the already vulnerable population at risk, enforcement officers warn.

The Department of Environment is concerned about two recent incidences of poaching, which it believes indicate a much larger problem.

“We don’t believe these are isolated incidents. We believe other, undetected incidents have also taken place,” said chief conservation officer Mark Orr.

Data from nighttime tagging patrols suggests the population of nesting turtles in Cayman is smaller than previously thought.

Nesting turtles are most vulnerable to poaching because they come on to land at night and dig holes on beaches to lay their eggs.

“Every adult female turtle is extremely valuable to the population. Only one in 1,000 baby turtles reaches maturity, and this takes more than 20 years, so our small populations cannot sustain even low levels of illegal take,” said Janice Blumenthal, a research officer with the Department of Environment.

The most recent poaching incident is believed to have been in West Bay on Oct. 6.

Mr. Orr said he discovered signs indicating that an adult female turtle had been dragged off the beach.

Earlier in the summer, he said, volunteer patrols discovered parts of a slaughtered loggerhead turtle in North Side.

He said the low numbers of turtles on Cayman’s beaches means that poaching is considered one of the most serious conservation offenses.

Anyone caught could face jail time and a fine, as well as the confiscation of vehicles or boats, he said.

Ms. Blumenthal said the recent incidents are even more concerning in the wake of new research demonstrating the relatively small size of Cayman’s nesting turtle population.

Just 21 green turtles have been tagged so far this nesting season, which runs from May to November.

Environment officers believe these 21 turtles are responsible for most, if not all, of the 131 nests in the Cayman Islands this year.

“It’s clear from our preliminary results that populations are even smaller than previously thought, and thus more vulnerable to threats such as illegal take,” Ms. Blumenthal added.

She said losing one turtle would likely mean six fewer nests and 600 fewer eggs in a nesting year.

The Department of Environment has been conducting daytime surveys of nesting beaches since 1998.

Each nesting turtle lays between three and six nests in a season, and data on the number of nests helps give a guide to the likely numbers.

New nighttime tagging patrols, funded by the Darwin project, have helped refine those estimates to give a more precise figure. The research will continue next year.

Ms. Blumenthal said, “Turtles do not nest every year, so this is a continuing project. We will be tagging again next summer to determine the total number of green turtles in our population. We will also be conducting a genetic study to further refine estimates of population size.”

Anyone with information regarding illegal take of turtles is asked to make a report to Mr. Orr by calling 916-4271.

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