Thailand frees endangered baby leatherback turtles hoping they return in 20 years to reproduce

Conservationists in Thailand have released 11 baby sea turtles of the endangered leatherback species into the Indian Ocean, hoping they will survive and return in two decades to reproduce.

The baby turtles were released from the resort island of Phuket after a long conservation effort to ensure their survival in the sea.

The leatherbacks, once a common sight on Thailand’s shores, were gone for years before returning to their nesting sites in 2018 to lay eggs.

Many of the turtles that hatched from the eggs successfully made their way into the ocean but a substantial number perished. The Thai government then launched a programme to nurse the weaker baby leatherbacks.

In April, after a year of nursing, 11 baby turtles were released into the sea with the hope that they will survive on their own and return to lay eggs in 20 to 25 years.

The conservationists have fitted the turtles, each about the size of a rugby ball, with satellite tags to monitor their progress.

“It’s necessary for us to study the travel routes of the baby turtles to understand where they are going so we can implement measures to protect the leatherback turtles while they are hatching from their nests,” Pinsak Suraswadi, director general of Thailand’s marine and coastal resources department, told Reuters.

The leatherbacks are the largest turtles on the planet, growing up to 210 6.8ft long and weighing around 900kg.

They have existed in the Pacific for over 100 million years, surviving the extinction of dinosaurs.

But the leatherback now faces severe threats, particularly in the Pacific, where their population has dwindled to fewer than 2,300 adult females, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Several conservation projects have been launched over the years to protect the turtles. But Thailand is one of only five countries, including Sri Lanka and Canada, that have managed to nurse baby turtles of this species up to their first year.

The newly freed turtles still face numerous dangers, including entanglement in fishing gear, ingestion of plastic debris and pollution.

“I’m happy to know whether our effort in nurturing the leatherback sea turtles for a year proves fruitful or not,” said senior fishery biologist Hirun Kanghae.

“If they survive it answers everything about the conservation and population restoration of the leatherback sea turtles in the best way possible.”

Additional reporting by agencies