As the largest of all living turtles, the Leather back turtle has been listed by the United States as an endangered species since June 2, 1970. This magnificent creature differs from other sea turtles in many ways, the most notable being that it lacks the bony carapace of other living turtles. Instead of scutes, the leatherback's carapace is covered by thick, leathery skin with embedded minuscule bony plates.
Of all living sea turtle species, the Leatherback turtles have the greatest global distribution. Living in all tropical and subtropical oceans, across both hemispheres, their breeding seasons vary based on location. They have many nesting sites, perhaps the most notable being the beaches of Mayumba National Park in Mayumba, Gabon. With upwards of 500 female turtles coming to nest on the beaches between September and April each year, the Mayumba National Park is the largest nesting site for the leatherback turtle in the African continent, and possibly the world.
Most species of sea turtles return to the same beach they hatched from when they are ready to nest, but female leatherback turtles have been found willing to switch to another beach within the same general region of their own hatching sites. Their selected nesting beaches are comprised of soft sand and sloped shores as they are more susceptible to damage by jagged, hard rocks.
Females use their flippers to dig a nest above the beach's high tide line. One female may lay as many as nine clutches (with an average size of 110 eggs each) in one breeding season. Once the eggs have been laid, the female refills the nest with sand. The eggs hatch in about sixty to seventy days.
Adult leatherback turtles have few natural predators due to their large size; however, very few actually survive to adulthood. The harvesting of their eggs is cited as the most significant factor for the species' global population decline. Sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy in many parts of Asia, and are a part of local diets in most parts of the tropical world. In Latin America, sea turtle eggs are considered an aphrodisiac and energizing protein. In some areas, nearly 100 percent of eggs are harvested immediately after being laid.
New hatchlings are even more vulnerable as they make way from their nest to the sea. Shorebirds and crustaceans are just a few of the predators known to prey on the baby turtles making their journey, and that's not the only problem.
The beaches needed for their nesting are also highly coveted by tourists, and so as the human economies make way for more tourists by building beach front hotels, restaurants and shops, female turtles are being frightened away and their eggs are being crushed beach-goers (many who don't realize the plight of these animals).
The instinct of hatchlings is to scuttle towards the bright light of the ocean's surf, but many hatchlings become baffled by the lights of nearby buildings. If they go the wrong way, death is inevitable.
As the numbers of female leatherback turtles clambering to nesting shores decreases, conservation efforts increase. Trade regulation, hatcheries and head start programs are the basis to repopulating the species, but none of that can be done without first increasing public awareness of the leatherback turtle's peril.