By Ingrid Oellermann
“Just dandy”, is how conservationist Dr George Hughes describes the state of sea turtle conservation in KwaZulu-Natal, which is in its 50th year.
Hughes, former CEO of the Natal Parks Board, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW), was a pioneer of its sea turtle monitoring and conservation project launched in 1963.
He was among a number of leading conservationists who visited Sodwana Bay to observe nesting Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles along the pristine coastline to celebrate the milestone at the weekend.
They included current EKZNW CEO Dr Bandile Mkhize, Dr Ronel Nel of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and EKZNW turtle expert Santosh Bachoo, who are involved in the monitoring programme.
The protected beaches of iSimangaliso Wetland Park are the only nesting sites of these mysterious sea creatures in South Africa.
By the early 1960s marine turtles were hunted almost to extinction, and their nests plundered.
They were sought after by local communities for their meat, eggs, oil, bones and shells.
Around that time only five Leatherback nests were recorded.
Dr Hughes told The Witness that during the first 10 years of the “rescue” operation, an average of 200 nesting Loggerhead females were recorded, while Leatherback numbers remained in the region of 21 per season.
Last year 800 Loggerheads and and 100 Leatherbacks — the highest number in four decades — nested along the KZN coastline.
Initial strict law enforcement coupled with the education of local communities were among strategies employed to save the turtles.
Hughes said local communities are currently very supportive of the conservation project and value their turtles. Most of the people employed in the conservation and monitoring programme are drawn from the local community, who are all good ambassadors for turtle conservation.
The KZN beaches where the turtles nest were proclaimed as protected Ramsar sites three decades ago and the area now has the status of a world heritage site.
Tourist “turtle safaris” to view nesting or hatching turtles, as well as their tagging and monitoring, have become increasingly popular. It was a magical, windless and starry night as we set out in search of the elusive sea creatures on Saturday.
In just over an hour the lights were suddenly switched off as the vehicle in front indicated having spotted a turtle. It was a Loggerhead female, who had unfortunately decided to turn tail and flee back to the sea.
Her ponderous path was blocked as the group gathered round in excitement and we were able to enjoy a good view.
Experts say if the turtles are not satisfied with conditions on the beach, they may decide to return to sea without laying, but must return within 24 hours or they will “abort” their clutch of eggs by releasing them into the sea.
On average, a Loggerhead lays in the region of 116 eggs per nest.
Within half an hour of seeing the Loggerhead, our vehicle stopped once more.
This time it was not the rare Leatherback, but another Loggerhead female who was in the process of nesting.
She patiently dug out a deep funnel shaped nest using her flippers and then laid eggs about the size of golf balls into the nest.
We were warned in advance to stay clear when the turtle began to cover her nest up, as sand flies in all directions in her enthusiasm to cover up all traces of the eggs.
We did not wait to see her return to sea as the incoming high tide approached. We drove back to our base, hoping we might yet catch at least a glimpse of the larger and scarcer Leatherback turtle, but that was not to be on that night.
Dr George Hughes launched his latest book, Between The Tides, In Search of Sea Turtles, at the weekend. It is available in book stores as well as on Amazon.com and Kalahari.co.za.