Of the seven species of living sea turtles found around the world, the most critically-endangered is the Kemp’s ridley (Testudines: Cheloniidae: Lepidochelys kempii). Although these turtles can be found all the way from Nova Scotia down through the Gulf of Mexico, they only nest on a relatively short stretch of beach from northeast Mexico into southeast Texas. Decades ago it was estimated there were perhaps 100,000 nesting females in this region, but today estimates are only between 1,000 and 10,000. In the last fifty years their numbers have been decimated by hunting, habitat loss, pollution, incidental capture by commercial fishermen, and climate change.
In southeast Texas an intense 30-year struggle to boost the population has been slowly gaining ground. Padre Island National Seashore has a dedicated group of scientists, rangers, and volunteers who work tirelessly to help Kemp’s ridleys recover. Female turtles come ashore from April through August to lay their eggs. Conservation scouts often discover these nests, recover the eggs, and bring them to a location safe from predators for incubation. When the eggs begin to hatch they are brought back to the beach and released under controlled conditions.
At these releases volunteers hold netting and wave flags to deter hungry birds who would otherwise snatch up the baby turtles. Slowly but surely the little reptiles make their way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Although their numbers are slowly increasing, these sea turtles are still in serious trouble. Their populations are dangerously low and they still face threats to their survival. With continuing work fueled by public interest and funding, however, they may continue to claw their way back from the brink of extinction.