Sea turtles are some of the most ancient reptiles still alive today and have been around for over 200 million years. They are adapted to living in the sea with flipper-shaped limbs and streamlined bodies, but must rise to the surface to breathe air. Five species of turtles are found in South African waters. The leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) turtles nest on the beaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal. The green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is a non-breeding resident, while the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles occur as strays in our waters.
Unfortunately for turtles, the characteristics that helped them to survive over millions of years have made them vulnerable to the impact of humans. Turtles wander the oceans, on routes determined by evolution, returning to their natal areas (where they were born) to mate and lay their eggs. This has made them vulnerable throughout their life history. Pressures on turtles include entanglement with fishing gear or accidental capture, plastic pollution and, historically, population declines due to harvesting of eggs and adults for meat.
Nesting beaches along the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastline are protected by MPAs. Ongoing monitoring since 1963 has revealed remarkable results demonstrating the importance of beach protection for nesting female turtles. In 1966, fewer than 10 leatherback turtles nested on the Zululand coast. The average number of nesting leatherback females has now risen to more than 70 nests per year. The number of loggerhead turtles has risen even more spectacularly from less than 250 in the early 1960s to 1 700 nesting annually within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
The Agulhas Front MPA and iSimangaliso MPA protect important feeding grounds for these ancient reptiles, especially the leatherback turtle which is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.