Caretta Caretta Turtle


Tartaruga Caretta 3 - Arrivo Tartaruga Notte (Giovanni Parire)

The Turtle Coast

Animal species arouse various and conflicting feelings in the human soul. Many small and inconspicuous creatures often leave public opinion completely indifferent. Others, like reptiles or insects, arouse fear and repulsion. Some, for symbolic reasons (the stork, for instance) or because of their appearance (the panda) or their biological or behavioural characteristics (the elephant, the whale) exercise strong powers of attraction over large sectors of public, so that today they often act as powerful reminders when fostering the green tourism associated with protected areas. This is the case with the larger mammals we find in the wildlife parks of Africa, or in the parks of Italy, like the ibex that resides in the Gran Paradiso National Park or the bear and chamois that inhabit the National Park of the Abruzzo region.

Zoologists call them “flagship species” because of their enormous strategic role within the ambit of conservation, all the more so because their ecological characteristics also play a key role in ecosystems. Their protection automatically means the safeguarding of numerous other species, directly or indirectly associated with them, thanks to the preservation of extensive habitats and natural landscapes.

The Caretta caretta, Loggerhead sea turtle is undoubtedly a flagship species. One measure of its popularity is the enormous number of websites dedicated to it, which is also a reflection of the alarming decline in the species’ overall population. If we consider, furthermore, the animal’s double bond with the land (the beaches) and the sea, as well as its other various biological peculiarities, it is easy to understand why conservationists attribute such great importance and attention to it.

The loggerhead is one of the twenty species of rare vertebrates at risk in this country, despite being the marine chelonian found most frequently in Italy (besides the green and leatherback turtle), it is the only one that nests and breeds here. In any case it is in danger of extinction throughout the Mediterranean and therefore protected by international and EU law. The main Mediterranean breeding sites are those in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Libya, the countries that possess 97% of the approximately 7,200 nests created annually in this sea. Ionian Calabria, in particular its Graecanic coastal area, is now recognised as Italy’s main sea turtle nesting ground. Therefore, it may, and rightly so, be considered this country’s only “turtle coast”.
Although only recently discovered, it is no mean record. Until the end of the last century, in fact, loggerhead nesting in Italy was considered a sporadic phenomenon, except for the Pelagic Islands (Lampedusa and Linosa), places where the nesting of this species was most frequently reported, despite the relatively small number of cases (2-3 nests / year, in the twenty years between 1980 and 1999).

This erroneous understanding of the situation was due, however, to lack of research. Nobody, for example, had ever carried out targeted investigation of the Calabrian coastline, where, up until 1999, on the southern-central Ionian shores, a dozen cases of undeniable nesting were reported, all the result of hatched eggs being discovered by chance during the height of the tourist season (August).

In 2000, in spring, the University of Calabria’s Department of Biology, Ecology and Earth Sciences, began a research project called “TARTACare Calabria“, where Tarta stands for turtle, Care recalls the species’ scientific name, Caretta caretta, the feminine plural of the Italian adjective meaning “darling “ as well as the English verb “to care“. The aim was to draw a picture of loggerhead nesting along the Ionian coast of Calabria.
The UNICAL (University of Calabria), research projects, authorised by the Nature Protection Directorate of the Italian Ministry for the Environment and carried out by a team of experienced researchers (including Salvatore Urso, Teresa Malito, Maria Danaro, Gianni Parise), has produced results that have gone beyond all expectations. It turns out, in fact, that the “last refuge” of the sea turtle in Italy is not that of the Pelagic Islands, but the Ionian coast of Calabria, where our chelonian is still breeding regularly, and in rather large numbers, particularly on the coast around Reggio Calabria (from Capo Bruzzano to Melito di Porto Salvo).

In no way comparable to the hundreds of nests found in Greece, here, the “mere” 15-20 hatchings per season – depending on the year – represent, nonetheless, from between 60 to 80% of all the nests reported in Italy – from which over 10,000 baby turtles emerged to reach the sea between 2000 and 2013. It should be added, that the Calabrian turtles also turned out to be a biological “unicum”, since they present genetic characteristics – highlighted by studies conducted by UNICAL in collaboration with the University of Rome, Tor Vergata – unlike any other Mediterranean turtle population.
The future of this important nesting area, the remains of a much larger previous population is, however, in grave danger. The habits of these reptiles clash with the increasing anthropic exploitation of the coast and sea.

The turtle’s reproductive strategy is one eloquent example of this man-animal clash. In the Mediterranean, the laying period begins in late May and can continue until late August, although 50% of the nests are generally built between mid June and mid July. Once the eggs have been laid, they are placed in a hole in the sand (between 30 and 50 centimetres deep), while the female returns to the sea, abandoning the brood. The eggs are “hatched” by the heat of the sand, after a period ranging between 45 and 70 days. Once the shells break, the babies climb out of the hole and when they reach the surface (usually at night), they head straight for the sea, where they live for several years (15-20) before returning, as adults, to reproduce on the beaches where they were born.

The risks these nests face are many, if one considers the fact that the hatching season coincides largely with the period when these beaches are most crowded; the mechanical smoothing and cleaning of the beaches, and the passage of off-road vehicles can all destroy entire broods. The artificial illumination of waterfronts, beaches and other facilities, is, perhaps, the largest risk factor of all. When they leave their nests, the baby turtles are, in fact, strongly attracted to these lights which induce them to head in a direction away from the sea and, therefore, towards certain death. There is also the matter of coastal erosion, largely attributable to anthropic action, which has led to disappearance of entire areas of potentially suitable nesting places. 

The survival of caretta is not related only to the time the animals spend on dry land, that is, to successful reproduction. Causes of the serious decline in the species’ Mediterranean populations, estimated at a total of approximately 3,000 nesting females, are also to be found in the strong increase in mortality rates during their life at sea, due to the impact of marine pollution, increases in seafaring traffic, and fishing, in particular. It is estimated that at least 60,000 specimens are captured annually in the Mediterranean and that at least 20,000 of these are the victims of fishing in Italian waters. Surveys conducted in the Reggio Calabria by the University, show how fishing nets and lines cause the capture, injury or death of about 500 specimens per season. Some are turtles born in other parts of the Mediterranean – mostly in Greece it seems- but which come to feed in the waters off the Calabrian coast. Conscientious awareness on the part of the fishing industry, the use of customised equipment, will – we hope – help reduce the impact of fishing and limit the deaths of so many animals.

This is one of the main aims of the EU-funded “LIFE Caretta Calabria” LIFE12 NAT/IT/001185, project sponsored by UNICAL (in collaboration with other partners), and recently approved by the European Union (European Commission, Directorate – General Environment, ENV.E.3 – Life Nature). The project also foresees a four-year effort aimed at implementing action capable of fostering environmental restoration and landscape enhancement (reclaiming sandy beaches and sand dunes, stemming coastal erosion, limiting light pollution) while also attracting tourists to the Costa dei Gelsomini/Jasmine Coast.

Safeguarding the sea turtle also involves, when all comes to all, protecting the sea and the beaches from degradation. The nesting of this extraordinary animal is not incompatible with respectful seaside tourism. It is, however, necessary to understand that beaches are not only expanses of sand, to be raked and smoothed, but an extraordinary, delicate natural ecosystem.

The hope is that the Ionian Coast of Reggio Calabria may really become the “Turtle coast”, the only one of its kind in Italy, a sign of serious, conscientious pledge by governments and citizens to respect and protect these amazing animals and the environment in which they reproduce.
So, our turtle might well create an incentive (an “added value“) to the development, within this coastal area, of a kind of tourism based on intelligent conservation and enjoyment of its unique natural resources.

Source: Pucambù – Guida al Turismo Sostenibile nella Calabria Greca
Professor Antonio T. Mingozzi
DiBEST, Department of Biology, Ecology and Earth Sciences
University of Calabria, Rende (Cosenza)
Head of the TARTACare Calabria project

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