Leatherback turtles are hatching in record numbers on Tetepare Island, in the Western Province, as rangers work to save the critically endangered species from extinction.

Almost 300 leatherback turtle babies have hatched from nests on Tetepare, just six weeks into the three-month-long hatching season. And 290 endangered green turtles have hatched from nests on the conservation island this year.

Conservation staffs from the Tetepare Descendants' Association (TDA) have declared this turtle hatching season the most successful since their turtle conservation program began five years ago. TDA Programme Coordinator, Allan Tippet Bero traveled to Australia last week to report on the hatching success at an international turtle symposium in Brisbane.

The TDA rangers expect many more leatherback babies will hatch on Tetepare in the coming months, thanks to the TDA's turtle conservation program, which is supported by the European Union and the WWF.

Tetepare is a globally important breeding ground for leatherback and green turtles, which nest on the island's volcanic black-sand beaches. TDA rangers have been stationed on Tetepare beaches since October last year, keeping watch over leatherback mothers laying eggs, relocating nests in danger of inundation from rising tides, and protecting nests from predators such as monitor lizards.

On nearby Rendova Island, community turtle monitors from Baniata, Havilla and Retavo are also protecting leather back nests on their local beaches as part of a TDA-run community incentive program to conserve turtles. Almost 260 leatherbacks have hatched on Rendova beaches so far this year.

TDA Conservation Advisor Anthony Plummer, an Australian marine biologist working with the TDA through the Australian Volunteers International, said the record number of hatchlings on Tetepare and Rendova was because of the hard work of the TDA rangers and community members.

"We've had 844 turtles hatch on Tetepare and Rendova this year, and few, if any of these hatchlings would have survived without the TDA's conservation program. TDA rangers work incredibly hard to protect the turtle nests and hatchlings. They work from dusk to dawn, patrolling the beaches on foot by the light of the moon, relocating nests and tagging turtles in the middle of the night, and keeping watch over hatchlings to protect them from predators as they dig out of their nests and crawl to the sea. They do all this to give this species a better chance of survival, so it's extremely gratifying for them to see their hard work rewarded by these terrific hatchling numbers. It is a great result for the TDA and for this critically endangered species," said Mr. Plummer.

"Whole communities were getting involved in the turtle conservation project on Rendova. It's terrific to see communities in the Western Province coming together to protect these rare and beautiful creatures. These communities are showing the world that everyone can play an important role in helping leatherback turtles survive. Eco-tourists visiting the TDA-run ecolodge on Tetepare were also helping to save the species by supporting local communities working to conserve turtles," he continued.

He said rangers were able to predict the nights when the leatherbacks hatchlings were most likely to emerge from their nests on particular beaches, and the TDA could advise tourists of potential nesting dates to maximize their chances of seeing one of these ancient creatures.

"It's a very special experience - a once in a lifetime chance for many people. The hatching season is at its peak now, and will continue until late March, so anyone hoping to see these turtle hatchlings should arrange a visit to Tetepare quickly," said Mr. Plummer.

Leatherback numbers in the Western Pacific had declined by more than 90 per cent since the 1980s. Leatherbacks had faced many threats, including too much harvesting of their eggs and rising sea levels that destroyed their nests.

Mr. Plummer said it was important that people did not disturb leatherback nests because there are so few breeding turtles left.

"Leatherback turtles could disappear within our lifetime and future generations of children in the Solomons and around the world may never get the chance to see them. Their fate lies in our hands," he said.

Named for the smooth leathery skin on its back, the leatherback is the largest sea turtle in the world. They can grow to more than 1.75 metres long and weigh more than 500 kilograms.

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