SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Biologists will switch on satellite trackers strapped to the backs of 11 female leatherback turtles today, starting what conservationists have dubbed the “Great Turtle Race” to raise awareness of a species threatened with extinction.
Sponsored by U.S. and Costa Rican environmental groups and businesses, the race will track the turtles on their annual 1,200 mile journey from Costa Rica’s Pacific coast to the Galapagos Islands.
Environmentalists say 90 percent of the leatherbacks have vanished and the species may disappear within 10 years due to illegal poaching of their eggs, ocean contamination and development near their nesting grounds.
Internet users can log on to www.greatturtlerace.com, read about the turtles and then track them over the next two weeks as they complete their migration to the islands off the Ecuadorean coast, according to the event’s organizers, headed by Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International.
Most of the competing turtles are expected to be in the water today after laying their eggs on the beach at Playa Grande in Costa Rica.
The leatherbacks, which can grow to be more than 6 feet and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, are the world’s largest turtles and are found throughout the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, ranging from Alaska to as far south as the Cape of Good Hope.
Scores migrate to Playa Grande to lay their eggs each year, but officials at Las Baulas Marine Park there said only 58 female leatherbacks arrived this year, down from 124 in 2006.
Scientists estimate that worldwide, the female population has fallen from an estimated 115,000 in 1980 to fewer than 43,000 today. Besides various threats to their habitat, the leatherback population is threatened by floating plastic bags or sheets, which they mistake for jellyfish – a staple of their diet.