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Gabon’s leatherback population is the biggest in the world, and Mayumba National Park hosts about half of Gabon’s population of this species of sea turtles.  These gentle giants have graced our seas for millions of years, but in the modern era have become endangered worldwide due to industrial fishing, poaching, pollution and loss of habitat.  In Gabon, Mayumba National Park was created expressly to protect this globally important leatherback colony, which is also home to nesting olive ridleys, green turtles and hawksbills.  In addition, in 2011 they were added to the national list of integrally protected species, and in 2017 further protected by the Aquatic Reserve du Grand Sud, along with a wider network of 20 marine protected areas covering 27% of Gabon’s waters.


Sea turtles are slow-growing migratory reptiles.  This means that hatchlings can take as much as 30-50 years to reach adulthood, and spend the intervening years riding the ocean currents many thousands of kilometres from the beaches where they were born.  However, as adults they are faithful to their natal beaches, from distant feeding grounds in South America or southern Africa, they somehow will find their way back to Gabon to lay their own nests and reproduce.  That is, if they survive the threats – it is estimated that only 1 in 1000 hatchlings reaches adulthood. 


In Mayumba National Park sea turtles have been studied and protected for more than 20 years by a consortium of organisations including the National Parks Agency (ANPN), Aventures Sans Frontieres (ASF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).  We have expert teams on the ground, working together to ensure surveillance of the Mayumba coastline during the reproductive season from October to April.  Through night-time and dawn patrols, we collect data on the sea turtles that come to lay their eggs, their numbers, species, size and even their individual identity and history.  In other words, through unique tags placed on their flippers we can recognise females coming back, multiple times during the same season, or years later.  Sometimes we receive news of our tagged turtles being found in Brasil, South Africa or Argentina, so we can follow their feeding migrations once they leave Gabon.  We have even placed satellite transmitters on Mayumba’s leatherbacks and olive ridleys, to follow their movements in our coastal waters so that we can better protect them, and once they travel almost 10 000 km away, so that we can better understand the threats overlapping with their movements. 


The data we gather in Mayumba is essential to describe the conservation status of the population, the trajectory of numbers over time, the impact of the threats we have yet to reduce, and the benefits of the conservation measures we have implemented.  Our patrols on the beaches and at sea are also essential to discourage illegal fishing, captures on the beach or poaching of nests.  We record all instances of mortality, such as strandings, predation or disorientation; threatened nests are transplanted to a protected hatchery to help increase their chances of survival.  But sea turtles are long-lived and wide-ranging animals, so our efforts have to be long-term to be effective, and they must be collaborative because of the inter-connectivity of their habitats throughout the life cycle.  Gabon’s leatherback population is the biggest in the world, the olive ridley population is the biggest in the Atlantic - Mayumba’s sea turtles are Gabon’s ambassadors across the oceans, a global heritage we are committed to preserve for future generations.

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