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World Sea Turtle Day: Why we need them and they need us

We have a unique opportunity to help these threatened ancient animals.

As poaching, pollution and climate change are impacting biodiversity across the continent, World Sea Turtle Day highlights the importance of sea turtles to our marine ecosystems – and the ways we can help our ancient ocean ally.

Sea turtles have survived for more than 200 million years. However, they currently face grave threats, from loss of nesting sites due to coastal development to entanglement and drowning in fishing nets or abandoned fishing gear. They also frequently ingest plastics, mistaking them for jellyfish, and in some countries, they are still being hunted for their meat and eggs. 

Sea turtles often ingest plastics, mistaking them for food

South Africa’s oceans are home to five turtle species – hawksbill and green turtles are classed as “critically endangered” while loggerhead, Olive Ridley and leatherback turtles are classed as “vulnerable”. 

“South Africa’s sea turtles urgently need our help. Though they outlasted the dinosaurs, our industrialised impact endangers them and the critical role they play in marine ecosystems, says Peter Knights, CEO at Wild Africa.

Watch: Once they’re gone, they’re gone – but we can still act now to protect our turtles 

Turtles serve both as prey for various predators, such as sharks and orcas, and assist in population control of their  prey, such as aquatic invertebrates, jellyfish and small fish – all helping to maintain ecological balance. They alter their habitats by digging nests and foraging in reefs, enhancing habitat complexity. They are also important for nutrient cycling; by feeding on decaying organic matter they help return nutrients to the ecosystem.

Sea turtles are ‘ecosystem engineers’, altering their habitats through nesting and foraging

The strong storms and winds we experience in the Western Cape, intensified by climate change, pose a great risk, often throwing turtles off their course and leaving them stranded on beaches. Fortunately, organisations like the Two Oceans Aquarium carry out rescue missions to save them, rehabilitating and then releasing stranded turtles.

Other turtles they rescue need assistance freeing them of plastic, and this forms a big part of the awareness drive that the Two Oceans Aquarium is spearheading.

“In our research facility we’ve seen a huge number of turtles come in with ingested plastic, and this causes huge damage to their gut,” says Talitha Noble, Conservation Manager at the Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation. “But there’s lots that the public can do. Firstly, we can tell people how cool turtles are! When we discover how amazing marine life is, we’re inspired to care for their environment. Secondly, we can become intentional about what plastic we use and how we recycle or dispose of it, where we shop, and the food that we eat. Thirdly, we can keep our eyes open for stranded turtles, especially during the stranding season from March to July,” she continues.

Watch: Learn more about turtles, the threats they’re facing and what we can do to help 

Wild Africa and Two Oceans Aquarium partner to raise awareness around the aquarium’s work, educating the public about our oceans and the ways people depend on natural ecosystems. 

“We need to reach audiences that are otherwise removed from these kinds of conversations. Everyone uses plastic so can help by using less, recycling and carefully disposing of any waste rather than tossing it away to end up potentially killing a turtle,” says Peter Knights. “Ahead of World Sea Turtle Day, we hope that the government, businesses and the public can work together to ensure that we keep these important animals from extinction,” he concludes.  

Watch: See how individuals are making a difference in protecting our turtles