In 1963 a formal conservation and research programme began on the remote beaches of northern Zululand, with Boteler Point near Kosi Bay as its logistical centre. The region was known in those days as Tongaland, and is now called Maputaland.
The survey area lay along some of the most remote and magnificent beaches South Africa, and stretched for 56 km from the mouth of the Kosi Estuary a few kilometres short of the South African-Mozambique border in the north to Black Rock in the south. With the construction of a rustic beach shack to house seasonal research staff, the programme was set to roll. The animals to be studied were amongst the rarest in the world – the elusive Tongaland sea-turtles.
There are five different species of sea-turtles world-wide – the olive ridley, the hawksbill, the green, the loggerhead and the massive leatherback. All sea-turtles have one thing in common – females have to return to dry land to lay their eggs. Of the five species only two are regular nesters along the Maputaland beaches – the loggerhead and leatherback turtles, although the other three are occasional visitors to the inshore waters. Sea-turtles were given absolute legal protection in South African waters too.
The survey area was, and still is, patrolled every night from late October until the end of January each season, and any nesting turtle found was fitted with a numbered metal tag also inscribed with details of a reward, and where to send the tag in order to claim it. This very basic form of monitoring the movements of turtles was the only option open to the research team in those days, South Africa being in the grip of politically-motivated sanctions. Researchers were, however, able to determine the basic movement patterns of the loggerhead and gradually gained an insight into the size and dynamics of the nesting population. Following the political change in South Africa in 1994, foreign academics were very keen to come to South Africa, and an expert on the tracking of animal migration routes through satellite surveillance, Professor Floriano Papi of the Pisa University in Italy brought his expertise to Maputaland. The loggerheads all moved up the African east coast, settling into feeding grounds off northern Mozambique, Kenya and Somalia. Fixing a satellite transmitter to a loggerhead was easy – researchers simply glued it onto the hard carapace of the animal. The leatherback, so called because of its leathery skin, was a different proposition. It required a complex harness which did not impede the animal’s breathing, and would also fall away after about six months. The first leatherback to be tracked amazed us all by heading south 100km out to sea, and travelling a huge distance in a very short time.
Since then, researchers have been placing satellite tracking transmitters onto the backs of the KZN sea-turtles almost every season, with fascinating results. Loggerheads continued to return to their feeding grounds along the African east coast, but the leatherbacks again provided much that was amazing. Most of the them travelled around the Cape and up the west coast . We still do not know where they spend their winters. What is know is that the leatherback is an ocean wanderer. Sadly, we continue to lose Leatherbacks to plastic pollution because a floating clear plastic bag resembles a jellyfish, which is the natural food of the animal. Many dead leatherbacks have been found to have digestive tracts crammed with clear plastic bags.
For more information on the sea-turtles of KZN go to:
There is a great deal of detailed information on the various sea-turtle research projects being conducted through the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. If you are interested please do a Google search for KZN turtle research NMMU.
We will be bringing you up-to-date results of the latest sea-turtle monitoring operation in our next newsletter.