BOOKS: Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2005:

Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology,
Behavior, and Conservation by James R. Spotila
Johns Hopkins University Press (2715 N. Charles
St., Baltimore, MD 21218), 2004. 224 pages,
illustrated. $24.95 hardcover.

“The lessons from Malay-sia are clear,”
James R. Spotila summarizes in the next-to-last
paragraph of his section on leatherbacks, three
paragraphs from the end of Sea Turtles.
“Developers built hotels and cottages right on
the nesting beaches to accommodate as many as
1,000 people a night who came to see the
leatherbacks nest. In addition, Malaysians
continued to take the eggs. The result was
near-extinction.
“People can make a difference,” Spotila
continues, “by assisting in efforts to oppose
development on leatherback beaches and by
demanding that their governments get industrial
fishing under controlÅ We may not be able to
accomplish this in counties like India and
Malaysia during our lifetimes,” he concludes on
a note of pessimism.

Spotila’s assessment of the threats to
leatherbacks actually applies to all sea turtle
species, as he makes clear elsewhere in Sea
Turtles–although one ought to note that
ecotourists wishing to view nesting sea turtles
are the least of the threats to turtle nesting
habitat.
The same hotels and cottages that cater
to ecotourists part of the year, along sea
turtle nesting beaches worldwide, are used most
of the year by others, including surfers,
snorkelers, divers, speed boaters,
motorcyclists, dune buggy drivers, horseback
riders, birders, sunbathers, and waders. Some
are ecologically conscious and avoid disturbing
sea turtles’ nests, but most have no idea where
the unmarked nests are. Collectively, their
refuse attracts far more turtle-egg-eating street
dogs than the buried eggs themselves, and the
artificial lighting that often induces sea turtle
hatchlings to crawl away from the water instead
of toward it is most likely to be turned off by
the turtle enthusiasts.
Further, both in fairness to India and
Malaysia and in recognition of the global scope
of the sea turtle survival issue, an
appreciative yet informed and critical reader
must observe that Sea Turtles is
disproportionately focused on the turtle
populations of the U.S., Mexico, and Caribbean
nations, with a few nods toward Australia and
scant recognition of anywhere else.
Most of Sea Turtles, actually, is about
the evolution and biology of the seven surviving
sea turtle species, interspersed with the
personal insights and anecdotes of an author who
is himself an active sea turtle researcher. The
emphasis on the Americas reflects Spotila’s own
experience, logically enough–but unfortunately,
as thorough as his biological discussions are,
and as spectacular as many of the photos are,
this is not nearly the “complete guide” promoted
by the subtitle.
Indian sea turtle conservationist Kartik
Shanker is among the many contemporary sea turtle
activists whom Spotila briefly profiles, but
Spotila otherwise writes off the conservation
efforts of India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Sri
Lanka, among other Asian nations, without even
mentioning them in his index.
Spotila’s maps of the most important sea
turtle nesting beaches, worldwide, almost
completely omit India, yet about half of the
world’s population of olive ridley sea turtles
nest along the Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil
Nadu coasts. As many as 380 modern trawlers and
50,000 traditional small-boat fishers work the
same waters; as many as 10,000 green sea turtles
per year wash up dead. The toll dropped by 40% in
2003-2004, but whether that was due to improved
conservation measures, a decline in the numbers
of turtles, or for unknown natural causes
remains unknown.
Now the tsunami of December 26, 2004 has
abruptly changed the circumstances. Amid the
human and animal suffering occasioned by the
tsunami, sea turtles appear to be big net
beneficiaris.
Beachfront development has been swept
from the shores of approximately half of the sea
turtle nesting habitat in Southeast Asia. More
than 150,000 people who formerly resided along
the beaches were killed; easily 10 times that
many will remain displaced, mostly inland,
until after the present nesting season ends.
More than 28,000 fishing and shrimping boats were destroyed.
Relief workers noticed almost immediately that
sea turtles were nesting again in places where
they had not been seen in years. Some turtles
and eggs were poached, but not so much by hungry
refugees as by the survivors among the same
scofflaws who always poach sea turtles and eggs,
if they can, taking advantage of the temporary
distraction of law enforcement.
Relatively few dead sea turtles washed
ashore during the next few weeks, reflecting the
interruption of fishing.
Whether the politics of sea turtle
conservation have changed remains to be seen.
The economic pressure to rebuild coastal
industries will be intense. The sea turtles of
the Indian Ocean may have a successful 2005
nesting season without really being any safer
than they were when Sea Turtles went to press.
Yet the tsunami bought sea turtles some time,
and if redevelopment proceeds with clear memories
of the disaster, they may get more space as
well.

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