Be mindful of the plight of turtles on International Turtle Day

  • 23 May 2016 | Ann Kunz

International Turtle Day is celebrated throughout the world on 23 May each year in a variety of ways to bring attention to the plight of turtles. All of the five species of turtle found in South African waters are on the endangered species list and are threatened by human impact.

Turtles are some of the most ancient reptiles still alive today and have been around for over 200-million years. Five species of turtle are found in South African waters: leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), loggerhead (Caretta caretta), green (Chelonian mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate) and the Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea). 

Malini Pather and Ula the turtle at uShaka Sea World

The leatherback is the largest of all sea turtles while the Olive Ridley turtle is the most rare and is seldom encountered. The loggerhead turtle is the most commonly encountered turtle and can be identified by its large, square head.

Each turtle species feeds on different prey thereby ensuring that they do not compete with each other for food and space.

Threats to the turtles' existence include habitat loss and degradation, collection of eggs and meat for consumption, incidental capture in fisheries, climate change and pollution. Litter and the effects of climate change are the biggest manmade threats to turtles along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline.

Turtles spend most of their lives as sea with only the females leaving the ocean to nest on sandy beaches. In South Africa only the leatherback and loggerhead turtles nest on our shores along the protected coastline within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. As with crocodiles, the temperature of the eggs dictates the sex of the hatchlings. 

Turtles are particularly susceptible to ocean pollution and often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, on which they prey. When turtles ingest plastic, they can suffer intestinal blockage, resulting in malnutrition, reduced growth rates and even death. Besides the threat of ingestion, plastic and other materials which find their way into the ocean cause a risk to marine animals becoming entangles in the debris. This causes drag when swimming and death can result due to drowning or starvation.

Next time you are preparing to head down to the ocean or a river, pack a refuse bag or two with your swimming gear. Every piece of refuse you collect could help save a turtle's life.

Learn more about turtles when you visit our Turtle Lagoon and find a fact sheet on the life cycle of the marine turtle here.

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