A new scientific survey has identified a huge nesting population of leatherback sea turtles in Gabon, West Africa. Science Daily reports on the article in press in this month’s issue of Biological Conservation, the new population may include as many as 41,000 female leatherbacks.

Leatherback sea turtles are classified as critically endangered, and the most recent survey in 1996 found only an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 adult females. The Gabon population could nearly double current population estimates, and may change the turtles’ IUCN listing.

Unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks have a soft outer shell made from numerous small bones covered with leathery skin, rather than a hard outer shell. They can weigh up to a ton, measuring eight feet in length. Leatherback populations have been found all over the world, in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans as far north as British Columbia, and as far south as the Cape of Good Hope. The Gabon population is by far the largest currently identified. 79% of the nesting sites in the study are located in protected areas, and one of the authors, Dr. Angela Formia of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said:

These findings show the critical importance of protected areas to maintain populations of sea turtles. Gabon should be commended for creating a network of National Parks in 2002 that have provided a sanctuary for this endangered species as well as other rare wildlife.

Matthew J. Witt, Bruno Baert, Annette C. Broderick, Angela Formia, Jacques Fretey, Alain Gibudi, Carine Moussounda, Gil Avery Mounguengui Mounguengui, Solange Ngouessono, Richard J. Parnell, Dominique Roumet, Guy-Philippe Sounguet, Bas Verhage, Alex Zogo, Brendan J. Godley. Aerial surveying of the world’s largest leatherback turtle rookery: A more effective methodology for large-scale monitoring. Biological Conservation, 2009; DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2009.03.009

Science Daily: World’s Largest Leatherback Turtle Population Found.