Turtles in Mozambique

Odds are against most leatherback and loggerhead turtles reaching maturity. But there is good news: conservation efforts along the coast of Maputaland and, more recently, in southern Mozambique, has seen an increasing number of turtles returning to these sites. The global picture still looks dismal, however. Pierre Lombard fills us in.

Sea turtles are charismatic animals that are recognised worldwide as rare and highly endangered. Numbers have been declining for decades, and the protection and monitoring of the remaining breeding sites critically important. One of those breeding sites found on mainland Africa runs along the eastern seaboard of Mozambique and South Africa. Two turtle species, the logger-head and the leatherback have been breeding here for many centuries, but both are now under serious threat. Loggerhead numbers are declining worldwide and leatherbacks, the largest turtles in the world, are critically endangered,mostly due to humans.

Loggerhead and leatherback turtles have been laying eggs on the southern Mozambican coast just north of the South African border for centuries, although there were no accurate records prior to 1994. Pierre Lombard and his family were based at the Ponta Malongane Resort for two years, from 1994 to 1995 and realised there was an urgent need for protection of the marine turtles nesting there. At that time, locals openly killed turtles for food, and nests were routinely dug up and the eggs taken for food or traditional medicines. In 1994, a tagging and monitoring project was started in the most southerly part of Mozambique that has been running for 23 years. The KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board assisted with tagging materials and supervision early on, but more recently, the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) was established and it has overseen the Southern Mozambique Sea Turtle Project since 2009. The protection and monitoring of these two endangered species is now part of a transboundary project between Mozambique and South Africa, supported by the Peace Parks Foundation and iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Although these species remained threatened world-wide, the number of loggerheads returning here has been increasing and the number of leatherbacks has stabilised as a result of this protection programme in southern Mozambique. The killing of breeding females has dramatically dropped in recent years due to good law enforcement by PPMR officials, as well as the monitoring team’s presence on the beach every night during peak breeding season. The research conducted consists of the gathering of data on numbers of female turtles nesting in the research area (30km up the coast from Ponta Malongane up to Ponta Dobela); inter-nesting intervals and migrations; and growth and mortality factors, through the tagging and measuring of all adult females coming to shore to nest. In the past 23 years, the Ponta Malongane-based turtle survey and monitoring work, undertaken by the Lombard family, has done much to fill the gap in knowledge of turtle abundance, species composition and egg-laying success, as well as mortality, in the area covered.

During the breeding season (from late October until March), nesting females will come ashore and make a nest every 10 to 14 nights (depending on the species), with individuals of both species making four or five nests per season. The female will lay about 120 eggs in each nest. It’s during this time that the breeding females – as many as possible – are tagged. In the 2015/16 season, 121 new turtles were tagged, of which only eight were leatherbacks. The Lombards found it particularly rewarding to come into contact with two turtles that were tagged in 2003 and one tagged in 2007. Every year, a substantial number of South African tags are recovered because the turtles nesting from St Lucia in northern KZN, to Inhaca Island in southern Mozambique, belong to the same breeding group. Overall, more than 270 turtles were handled during that season, and quite a few of these turtles were handled two to three times, due to their recurring nesting.

Sea turtle eggs take 55–60 days to hatch. Ghost crabs are one of the biggest threats to both eggs and juveniles, which can kill more than 10% of a nest. Modern civilisation is also taking its toll on these little creatures, as dogs tend to dig up nests and bright lights from beachside developments can disorientate hatchlings, causing them to stray into dunes and vegetation, instead of finding their way to the ocean. To assist in the monitoring and tagging programme, a reliable patrol vehicle is needed to do the 60km or so of beach driving every night over the breeding season. The beach terrain can vary from easy-going during springtide to extremely soft, wet sand during neap tides. During extreme spring tides, challenging rocky points can be washed open, too.

Finding a sponsored vehicle for the beach monitoring has proven to be the biggest challenge for the annual monitoring effort and for 14 out of 23 years, the Lombard family has used their own personal vehicles. More recently, South African-based companies such as Toyota, Landrover and over the 2014/15 season, Foton, have assisted. A Mozambican Ford dealership, InterAuto, in partnership with Ford South Africa, came to the rescue for the two most recent seasons and provided a 3.2 turbodiesel Ford Ranger. The Ranger is an excellent beach patrolling vehicle and its use as a tool to assist in the monitoring and protection of two of the world’s endangered species has been highly appreciated and welcomed by the Lombards.

Here’s to the future, and hoping that it is one where the number of female turtles that find a spot to lay their eggs on our northern shores (and those of southern Mozambique) continues to grow.