TEPEHUAJES, Mexico – This is the story of a remarkable comeback.

A rejuvenation that many experts considered all but impossible 20 years ago.

But on the remote beaches of northern Mexico, the most endangered of all sea turtles, the Kemp’s ridley, is marching back from the brink of extinction.

Based in simple camps and basic corrals, teams of Mexican and American biologists and volunteers patrol miles of remote beaches for nests and then dig up the eggs to protect them from predators and poachers.

Last week marked the peak of hatching season as more than 200,000 hatchlings made their slow crawl to the sea.

As the sun set last Wednesday at Tepehuajes, about 200 miles south of Brownsville, the freshly hatched sea turtles are taken out of protective crates and placed one by one on the sand. It only takes about 10 minutes for the quickest of the tiny turtles, which can easily fit in the palm of your hand, to trundle a few feet into the Gulf of Mexico.

Some take far longer, including one clutch of turtles that were returned to their crate after it was determined they weren’t quite ready to meet the sea. A few hours later, they, too, disappeared into the Gulf waves.

The releases set a new benchmark for the joint conservation effort between Mexico and the United States that began 26 years ago to save the smallest sea turtle species.

It was almost too late.

In 1985, when only 702 nests were found on Mexican beaches, many scientists predicted that the Kemp’s ridley wouldn’t be around for long.

“It looked pretty bleak,” said Patrick Burchfield, the deputy director of Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, who oversees the U.S. portion of the conservation project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Then, the numbers slowly started to climb. This year, 11,600 nests already have been counted, exceeding last year’s total of 10,099. And the season isn’t over yet.

It has even led to talk that the Kemp’s ridley could be downlisted from an endangered species to threatened status by 2012.

“I’m optimistic,” Burchfield said before warning of some possible pitfalls.

More of the Mexican coast needs to be declared a sanctuary. Donors must continue to support the project. And the numbers could dramatically reverse if anything were to happen to the beaches in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas because they are the only established nesting sites.

A natural or man-made disaster could derail the recent run of climbing numbers.

“There are always peaks and valleys in nature,” Burchfield said. “It never simply goes in a straight line.”

That’s one reason efforts are under way to establish a second nesting ground in Texas, where this year 94 turtles have come ashore, including 60 on the Padre Island National Seashore. Scientists also recorded nine nests on Galveston Island this season.

Historical records aren’t clear, but Burchfield and others believe that Kemp’s ridley turtles were once far more common on portions of the Texas coast. And if the numbers continue to climb in Mexico, he predicts that the habitat will expand to other parts of Texas.

The biggest reason for the comeback has been the protection of the turtle eggs on the beaches. Before conservation efforts began, almost all of the eggs were being poached on the Mexican coastline to be sold as aphrodisiacs.

The turtles are also vulnerable when they nest because they must reach the dunes, lay their eggs and return to the water within 45 minutes or risk dying from the heat.

But with teams of biologists and volunteers from both countries patrolling the beaches for nests during the day and releasing hatchlings at night, the situation has dramatically improved.

Jaime Ortiz, the manager of the camp at Tepehuajes, has worked to save the turtles since 1978.

But the soft-spoken Ortiz is cautious about claiming any credit for the turtles’ resurgence.

“I’m very excited,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m genuinely pleased to see the turtles doing so well.”

Then he went back to work, checking on stragglers and keeping an eye out for hungry predators like crabs and pelicans.

The seafood industry, which once was criticized roundly by environmental groups for causing turtle deaths, has contributed heavily to the project. In 1987, the United States forced American shrimpers to use turtle-excluder devices that allow turtles to escape from nets. In 1989, the U.S. passed a law requiring countries that export shrimp to U.S. markets to also use the devices.

But Burchfield insists that the seafood industry, which has provided funding for the camps and lobbied to keep federal funding, is the reason the program is still running.

“I want to say without equivocation: This project wouldn’t be here without the help of the seafood industry,” he said.

Three times funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project has been cut, only to be restored after lobbying by the seafood industry, he said.

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Last year, Brownsville seafood wholesaler Les Hodgson got an audience with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who then pushed until the funding was restored.

Hodgson makes the five-hour trip from Brownsville several times a week to bring food and other supplies to the six remote and Spartan beach camps that are run on an annual budget of about $280,000.

And with that shoestring budget, Burchfield laments that there is little money left over for research to tag the turtles or study their habits. The growing number of returning turtles also means the small teams of biologists and volunteers don’t reach every nest, he said.

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At Tepehuajes, the building where volunteers sleep includes a basic kitchen, living room and one bedroom filled with a half-dozen bunk beds. The only other structures around the beach are several squatter’s shacks for fishermen and a dozen thatched-roof shelters for beachgoers.

Down the road is a small ceramics facility that was created to give locals another way to earn money since they no longer can sell the turtle eggs, which can fetch $1 apiece on the black market.

All of the patrolling is done on all-terrain vehicles because the rough sands of the beach can be too treacherous for four-wheel-drive trucks.

“On some days you are going 24-7,” said Jaime Pena, a Gladys Porter Zoo biologist who oversees the six camps.

“You spend all day looking for nests and then you spend all night releasing baby turtles. Here, there is no U.S.-Mexico – everybody is on the same team. There is no talk about politics. It is all about the turtles.”

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Several miles south of Tepehuajes, the hub of turtle nesting at Rancho Nuevo can be cut off from civilization for days if heavy rains flood the dirt road to the beach.

Project supporters are trying to encourage eco-tourists to visit the fringes of the turtle-nesting grounds at La Pesca on the north or Tampico on the south. But they still want to keep too many people from visiting the beaches of Rancho Nuevo, Tepehuajes or Barra del Tordo, which account for 90 percent of all Kemp’s ridley turtle hatchings in the world.

Mike Ray, deputy division director of coastal fisheries for Texas Parks and Wildlife, worries that the sensitive habitat could be threatened by the march of development.

For now, though, the remote and scenic beaches remain unspoiled. And Burchfield said the Mexican government is committed to keeping it that way.

Despite the potential for future problems, Burchfield concedes that it was a man-made solution that has brought the turtles back from the brink.

“We can say this is one species that is not gone yet,” he said. “It is nothing magic. We eliminated the predators, and the turtles did the rest.”



(c) 2006, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web at http://www.star-telegram.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): mexico-turtles

AP-NY-07-07-06 1857EDT


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