Poaching and consumption of marine animals remain major threats to the conservation of sea turtles along Africa's east coastline.
According to researchers, human activities have tipped the scales against the survival of these ancient marine animals for over the past 200 years. Slaughtered for their eggs, meat, skin, and shells, sea turtles suffer from poaching. They also face habitat destruction and accidental capture — known as bycatch — fishing gear.
The experts reviewed evidence between 1965 and 2022 focusing on sea turtles along the coast of Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Mozambique and South Africa. It was particularly a “sad story” for the hawksbill turtles of East Africa, according to the study.
However, there are success stories, among them growing numbers of loggerhead turtles in South Africa and Mozambique, and increasingly effective conservation networks in Tanzania's coast. The study is titled Marine turtles of the African east coast: Current knowledge and priorities for conservation and research.
The research team, led by the University of Exeter and experts from Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and the wider Western Indian Ocean region, said the sea reptiles had to dodge hordes of threats even before they hatch.
“The turtles face many threats along the African east coast, from egg to adult,” said lead author Casper van de Geer, from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall. “Our aim was to bring together everything that is currently known about these turtles, and to identify opportunities to better protect them in this rapidly developing region.”
“We found that there's still a lot we don't know about these turtle populations, like how many they actually are or where they spend most of their time and migrate to,” he noted. “If we use clutches of eggs laid as a measure of population, then we see that some have recovered well in some places. For example, loggerhead turtles appear to be recovering in South Africa and Mozambique. However, leatherbacks in the same areas have not responded as positively to conservation efforts — suggesting there’s something going on in their lifecycle that’s stopping them from bouncing back as quickly.”
Within the East African subregion, illegal take of marine turtles was found to be widespread in Madagascar. Findings indicate that this is largely done by locals. Domestic trade appears to be a well-organised activity that involves the supply of specimens between areas that are hundreds of kilometres apart. Illegal distribution networks operate on land and sea.
In Mozambique, marine turtles were found to be taken both as targeted and non-targeted catch. Illegal take is largely perpetrated by local artisanal fishers, who capture them for consumption and related trade. Domestic trade appears to be more localised than in Madagascar, as reports of trade across large distances within the country were not evident. Some reports of cross-border trade with Tanzania indicate that Mozambique is involved in international trade in marine turtles.
“Hawksbill turtles probably nested very widely along this coast, but within the last 20 years this has stopped almost entirely,” noted Van de Geer.
Sea turtles generally nest where they hatched, but once a species stops nesting in a certain location it is difficult to re-establish nesting there. Apparently, these critically endangered hawksbills have shifted their nesting to other sites in Western Indian Ocean where it is hoped that they will be able to recover from.
The sea turtle is a fundamental link in marine ecosystems and helps maintain the health of coral reefs and seagrass beds. The researchers observe that even though there is good legislation in place to protect turtles, stakeholder groups actively participating in conservation and both scientific and local expertise in the region, better protection in accordance with the law and greater collaboration will be needed in response to increasing pressure on turtles due to human activity.