What threatens turtles and how we can help

Turtles under threat of extinction

By Andrei Mihail

Turtles, those captivating creatures of land and sea. They have long beguiled the hearts of nature enthusiasts and ecologists alike, with their unique charm and diverse adaptations. From herbivorous giants calmly wandering the ocean to aggressive freshwater snappers, turtles are an integral part of the countless delicate ecosystems they inhabit. Yet their saga takes a melancholic turn; as an order of vertebrates, they are second only to primates in the percentage of threatened species.

The myriad challenges they face on their path to adulthood span the globe. Their extinction rate is estimated to be even faster than during the infamous Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, implying that, if unaddressed, we could lose all turtle species within a few centuries.

Yet this is not the end of the turtle’s tale. Despite the insurmountable odds, conservationists remain steadfast in their mission to safeguard these creatures for future generations. The next chapters of the turtle’s story are being written today, and it is our shared responsibility to ensure they are ones of hope, resilience, and recovery. And to understand the story in-depth, we need to look at how it began. 

Nesting and environmental challenges

Imagine a secluded beach on the shores of Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica. Despite the late hour, the air is still balmy, and as the night grows darker, a gentle breeze carries the faint aroma of salt, while the rhythmic symphony of crashing waves provides a soothing backdrop. The beach is embraced by rolling dunes adorned with seagrass and the occasional scattering of seashells. 

It all began around 60 days prior, when female sea turtles painstakingly dug their nests using their powerful back flippers, laying around 100 eggs each. After completing this arduous task, they made their way back to the ocean, leaving their offspring to develop in the embrace of the sand. Unbeknownst to them, human influence has already started shaping the fate of these tiny beings. 

The temperature of the sand plays a crucial role in determining the gender of the baby sea turtles, a phenomenon, known as Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination (TSD). Rising temperatures during the breeding period in coastal regions have led to skewed gender ratios, potentially impacting the genetic diversity of sea turtle populations. A study conducted on a breeding ground in Raine Island found that in a population of 200,000 turtles, over 99% of Juvenile turtles and 87% of the matured counterparts are female.

The global rise in temperature isn’t the only manifestation of climate change with negative a impact on turtle eggs, as unusually frequent and intense weather events can greatly disturb the nesting season while the rising sea levels pose a threat to the most significant nesting sites, reducing the available space for these creatures to continue their life cycle.

Perilous journey begins: stars and artificial light

Unaware of any of this, or anything at all, really, a baby turtle, using every ounce of strength, breaks through the egg and wriggles through the sand, emerging into a world filled with uncertainty. Soon, hundreds of its siblings follow suit, creating a remarkable spectacle known as a “turtle boil,” as countless hatchlings simultaneously emerge from their hidden nests, covering the beach in a flurry of tiny flippers.

This merciless world offers little warmth and solace. Soon, birds swoop down from the skies, and opportunistic crabs scuttle across the sand, eager for an easy meal. Sadly, only a fraction of the hatchlings will survive this critical phase, as nature’s harsh selection process takes its toll.

Guided solely by instinct, the hatchling embarks on a journey towards the beckoning sea. It relies on the natural cues of the environment, such as the downward slope of the beach and the shimmering reflection of the moon and stars on the Caribbean Sea. For the hatchling, light signifies safety, leading them towards life-sustaining waters. 

However, the presence of artificial lights stemming from coastal development can disrupt this delicate balance. Confused and disoriented, the hatchlings may veer off course, away from their intended path to the sea, and instead, find themselves in treacherous locations like roads and parking lots.

The ravages of habitat destruction

The hatchling finally enters the water. And as if the trials of its initial journey were not enough, human activities have introduced another layer of complexity to the turtle’s plightadding to their ever-mounting challenges. From coastal development to water pollution, habitat destruction has become a specter looming over the survival of turtle species worldwide.

The once-pristine waters have been polluted by our reckless actions. Plastic pollution is particularly deadly for turtles who mistake these non-biodegradable materials for food. Plastic bags floating in the water resemble jellyfish, a staple of many sea turtles’ diets. Consuming these plastics can lead to blockages, starvation, and eventually, a slow and painful death. While hard to quantify how many die directly from plastic ingestion, ingesting just one piece of plastic has a 20% chance of killing a sea turtle. Even if a turtle successfully navigates the treacherous maze of non-edible threats, it can still struggle to find the nutritious sustenance it needs to thrive.

The relentless march of urbanization and the corrosive effects of pollution erode once-abundant feeding grounds, transforming them into inhospitable landscapes. This eradication of vital foraging habitats strips turtles of essential nourishment, critically undermining their odds of survival.

Chemical pollution, too, poses a significant threat. Toxic substances, like heavy metals and pesticides, make their way into the water bodies through agricultural runoff, industrial waste, and other human activities. These toxins can accumulate in the turtles, leading to various health complications, reproductive issues, and premature death.

Poaching, illegal wildlife trade and fishing

On top of human ignorance, turtles also face another adversary: human greed. Poaching and illegal wildlife trade cast a dark shadow over the survival of these gentle creatures. The allure of their precious shells, meat, and eggs drives unscrupulous individuals to exploit and decimate their populations, without stopping to think about the continued survival of the creatures. Over the past 30 years, it is estimated that over 1.1 million sea turtles were illegally killed. Unsustainable harvesting practices place immense pressure on the turtle populations already struggling to overcome other threats.

Perhaps even more tragically, many a turtle’s life is snuffed out before it even begins its proper journey into the deep blue, caught unwittingly by fishing vessels in an act known as ‘bycatch’. An analysis suggests that at least 85,000 sea turtles have met a premature end in this manner over the past two decades, but as only around 1% of fishing vessels worldwide are monitored, this number could soar as high as 8 million.

Imagine: the tiny hatchling that survived the perilous trek to the ocean, evaded the clutches of birds and crabs, dodged artificial lights, and battled through polluted waters, only to be ensnared by a net meant for another species. Fishing is an indiscriminate operation, and the nets and hooks are designed to kill.

Global conservation

Amidst this bleak picture, hope emerges in the form of global conservation initiatives. Driven by dedicated individuals and organizations, they are fighting to protect and restore turtle populations worldwide. For every threat the hatchlings face, there is a way to minimize it. For every human that threatens them, directly or indirectly, there is one trying to give them a fair fighting chance.

Protection and preservation of turtle nesting

One of the most effective strategies employed by conservationists is the protection and preservation of turtle nesting and feeding sites. These actions range from the enforcement of regulations that restrict beachfront construction in these areas, to habitat management efforts aimed at minimizing human interference, to beach cleanup initiatives.

In the face of climate change, conservationists and governments are safeguarding nesting grounds by building defenses against rising sea levels, leading reforestation initiatives and implementing International and country specific Legislations like the Panama’s “Right of nature” law to foster the protection and preservation.

“Turtle-friendly” lighting

Light pollution, another major obstacle for hatchlings, is also being addressed by cooperating with local communities and governmental bodies to introduce “turtle-friendly” lighting in beach areas and adjacent constructions. These specially designed lights help prevent disorientation in hatchlings, guiding them securely towards the sea.

Laws and penalties against illicit trade

To counter the ominous threat of poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking, conservationists are collaborating with law enforcement and border control agencies. They are urging the implementation of tougher laws and penalties against illicit trade, making these activities less lucrative and more perilous. They also spearhead public awareness campaigns aimed at dissuading the consumption of turtle-derived products. 

If ignorance and greed are the key drivers of the threats facing turtles, then education and advocacy are at the core of conservation endeavors. By enlightening the public about the struggles of turtles and encouraging individuals and communities to make environmentally friendly decisions, conservationists are fueling a worldwide push for turtle preservation.


The epic journey of a baby turtle, symbolic of nature’s resilient spirit, reflects the urgent and formidable challenges our shared environment faces today – largely human-induced. Yet, even in this gloom, we find glimmers of hope in the proactive, global conservation efforts protecting these ancient creatures from threats like climate change, pollution, and poaching. But the final chapter of this story remains unwritten, and its conclusion depends on our collective actions, choices, and attitudes.

Every step we take towards environmental responsibility creates a ripple effect, potentially transforming us from agents of destruction to architects of survival. As we stand at this crucial crossroads, let’s pledge to make choices that show respect for all life, striving for a future marked by promise for our shared world.

Andrei Mihail

Master’s student in Biodiversity and Global Change at University College London. Andrei has a deep love for nature, and writes to connect people all over the world with conservation and technology.


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