Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Actions and Attitudes: Page 6

     Another highly endangered species that nests on beaches has been the subject of a successful reintroduction program sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the Mexican government.  The Kemp's Ridley (Lepidochelys kempi), smallest and rarest of all sea turtles, became endangered from killing for its meat and shell.  Killed off by poachers in Texas, where it once nested, a long and difficult program was initiated to return these turtles to Padre Island.  Thousands of eggs laid by the last 500 nesting females on the turtles’ only remaining nesting beach along the Caribbean coast of Mexico were taken to Texas for hatching.  It is not known how sea turtles learn to return to their natal beaches after spending many years at sea, and all precautions were taken to convince the hatchling turtles that they had been hatched in Texas, not Mexico.  The eggs were not even allowed to touch the sand on their Mexican beaches.  Between 1978 and 1988, when the program was halted for lack of visible success, a total of 22,000 eggs had been taken to Padre Island, hatched, kept in captivity until they were about a year old and then released to the sea.  In 1996, to the delight of conservationists, two female Ridley Turtles that had been released 12 and 14 years previously, returned to lay eggs on Padre Island.  They were recognized by a special marking the US Fish and Wildlife Service had made on each shell identifying the year the turtles were hatched.  By 1999, 16 nests of returning Ridley Turtles were found by volunteers and members of the recovery team who monitor the beach 24 hours a day during the summer nesting season.  This is the first known case of successful reintroduction of sea turtles.  Numbers of these turtles have increased to about 9,000 in 2001, but they are still only a fraction of the 40,000 filmed nesting on a Mexican beach on a single day in the 1940s.

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