• Dermochelys coriacea

The Leatherback turtle is the largest of all turtles living today, growing up to 3m in length, and weighing up to 500kg.
Also known as: Leatherback Turtle
Local Names: Taba-i-walu, Tutuwalu, Vonudakulaca

Description

The Leatherback turtle is the largest of all turtles living today, growing up to 3m in length, and weighing up to 500kg. A feature that distinguishes this turtle from other sea turtles is the absence of a shell. Instead of having scutes, which make up the carapace of sea turtles, the carapace of the Leatherback is made up of its leathery skin which is embedded with a small layer of bones. Some of these bones are enlarged and arranged into a series of 7 longitudinal ridges on the carapace. Male Leatherbacks have tails which are longer than their hind limbs. The tails of females, in contrast, are only half as long as their hind limbs. The leatherback’s flippers, in proportion to their body are the largest among the world’s sea turtles, and do not have any claws. The forelimbs are particularly large and also lack claws. The dorsal surface of the leatherbacks can be dark brown to black in colour with some blotches of white. The under surface is a yellowish white. Hatchlings of this species are a rich blue black trimmed with white in colour, with a pale under surface.

Distribution

Worldwide in tropical and temperate waters. Within Fiji, this species has been recorded in the Savusavu region, Namenalala, Qoma, Natewa Peninsula waters, Vatulele, Tailevu waters, Kia and the Yaro Passage.

Habitat Ecology and Behaviour

Leatherbacks are primarily a pelagic species (found in the open ocean) but occasionally enter shallow waters of bays and estuaries. Little is known of its habits in Fiji see attached for nesting info as there are no records of nesting sites in the country. Anecdotal information has shown that Leatherbacks are usually found to be transiting across the Namenalala reef passage in Kubulau, and across Kia Island of Vanua Levu. In other parts of the world, Leatherbacks are known to be omnivorous, feeding on juvenile fish, jellyfish, sea urchins, squid, crustaceans, tunicates, fish, blue-green algae, and floating sea weed. They breed seasonally from October to February south of the equator in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and may breed all year round close to the equator in Indonesian Papua. Leatherback turtles come ashore at night, dig up their nests and lay 50-170 spherical, soft white-shelled eggs in each clutch. They are the fastest growing turtles and mature when they are between 10– 15 years old.

Threats

The severe decline in the Western Pacific population of Leatherbacks has largely been attributed to the consumption and exploitation of the eggs and meat. The Leatherback is most vulnerable in its early life stage, as an egg or hatchling which is when it is defenseless and most vulnerable to predation by birds, small mammals, monitor lizards and humans. Degradation of nesting sites and foraging habitat, excessive harvesting and predation of hatchlings and eggs and being accidentally caught in fishing operations are the key threats to the survival of this species. Adult Leatherbacks have few natural predators, although they have been harvested by traditional societies, however, their decline has been hastened by the increasing presence of plastic bags in the ocean which the Leatherbacks mistake for jelly fish and ingest, usually resulting in death. Leatherback mortality is also high as the by-catch in certain shark and commercial trawling fisheries. Turtles caught in nets usually have a higher chance of being alive than those caught in fishing lines.

Conservation Status

The Leatherback is Critically Endangered in the Pacific and its nesting beaches are under threat almost wherever they still survive. There are no recent reports of nesting in Fiji and conservation efforts are directed towards the individuals that visit or transit through Fiji waters. There is a worldwide movement on the conservation and protection of this species. In Fiji, the Institute of Marine Resources (IMR) of the University of the South Pacific and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) South Pacific Program are the two main organisations involved in the research and the conservation management of this and other sea turtle species. Currently, harvesting of leatherback and other sea turtles is illegal in Fiji. Any person caught harvesting turtles or eggs without a permit may be prosecuted and face 3-6 months imprisonment, or a $500 fine, or both. Persons caught selling turtles face a heavier fine of up to $20, 000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years.

Remarks and Cultural Significance

The Leatherback is Critically Endangered in the Pacific and its nesting beaches are under threat almost wherever they still survive. There are no recent reports of nesting in Fiji and conservation efforts are directed towards the individuals that visit or transit through Fiji waters. There is a worldwide movement on the conservation and protection of this species. In Fiji, the Institute of Marine Resources (IMR) of the University of the South Pacific and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) South Pacific Program are the two main organisations involved in the research and the conservation management of this and other sea turtle species. Currently, harvesting of leatherback and other sea turtles is illegal in Fiji. Any person caught harvesting turtles or eggs without a permit may be prosecuted and face 3-6 months imprisonment, or a $500 fine, or both. Persons caught selling turtles face a heavier fine of up to $20, 000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years.

References

Guinea (1993);
Laveti and Fong (2007);
Laveti and MacKay (2007);
MacKay K. (personal communication);
Solomona (2005);
Solomona, P. (personal communication);

Frontpage Photo: Jeanine and Michael D’Antonio: A leatherback turtle on the beach in one of the nesting beaches in the Solomon Islands. The leatherback turtles are the largest living turtles in the world and are threatened by extinction.
Related Media
Most Viewed Reptiles
Endangered Species Compendium
Latest Project
Taveuni National Park Project
Located in the Province of Cakaudrove, the island of Taveuni is Fiji’s 3rd largest island. Since the 1980s, the National Trust and the Fiji Department of Forests have been advocating for the merger of the Ravilevu Nature Reserve, Taveuni Forest Reserve and the Bouma National Heritage Park to form the Taveuni National Park. In 1993 the Fiji Department of Environment proposed the ‘Integrated Development Plan for Taveuni’ supporting this combination to better promote the wilderness and cultural features of Taveuni to harness Taveuni’s tourism market to its full potential. The Fiji Department of Forests, National Protected Areas Committee, Cakaudrove Provincial Council and NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, with support from the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund are revitalising efforts to bring Taveuni's three current protected areas into one Taveuni National Park: 1. Taveuni Forest Reserve (FR). Declared in 1914. Size: 11, 160 HA 2. Ravilevu Nature Reserve (NR). Declared in 1959. Size: 4, 108 HA 3. Bouma National Heritage Park (BNHP). Established by covenant in 1990. 1, 417 HA. TAVEUNI’S WILDLIFE AND LANDSCAPE Much of Fiji’s land and forest has now been impacted and modified by deforestation, commercial and subsistence agriculture, plantation timber production and/or invasive alien species. We must also remember the historic impacts of the first human settlement that resulted, for example, in the extinction of many species and conversion of dry forests to grasslands. Not only has Taveuni retained significant forest and wetland ecosystems across a full altitudinal range (ridge to reef), but also it has not been severely impacted by invasive species, in particular the mongoose. The absence of the mongoose from Fiji’s third largest island has resulted in the retention not only of Taveuni’s endemic fauna species but also Fijian endemics that have been extirpated or are highly threatened on Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. SPECIAL LANDSCAPES ON TAVEUNI Taveuni’s outstanding landscape qualities are derived mainly from its tropical forest cover. From all points around the Taveuni coastline, there are views of the undisturbed, densely forested uplands. Frequently cloud and mist-capped, the rugged central range dominates the landscape with characteristic emergent volcanic cones. From the peaks of the central range descend the long symmetry of old lava flows covered with dense rainforest. Taveuni is one of the very few islands where the scale of negative land use impacts has been limited. But current trends of widespread soil degradation and encroachment into the reserves indeicate taht this is changing for the worse. The thriving agricultural industry of Taveuni can attribute its success to the Taveuni Forest Reserve which was established to ensure unlimited water supply and free ecosystem services to the people of Taveuni. While the Taveuni FR currently provides little monetary benefit to landowners, combined with the Ravilevu NR and Bouma National Heritage Park, the Taveuni National Park will build a strong imperative for ecotourism development. THE PROJECT Not until 2009 were landowners informed about plans which had been around for 30 years on possible Protected Areas development, and the potential of Taveuni's forests for conservation. If there is one conspicuous lesson of the lead up work of the Sovi Basin Protected Area project, it was that there was no real progress until the landowners and the Fijian administration took up ownership of the process. Getting the landowners involved in the PA discussions is the main objective of this project.
Latest Newsletter
NFMV January 2014 Newsletter - #17
Good news to start the year, NFMV receives a grant to protect our logo - the rare forest conifer - Acmopyle sahniana