The massive Pacific leatherback sea turtle is known for its long, 6,000-mile trek from the U.S. West Coast to its breeding grounds in Indonesia. The largest turtles on Earth, they can grow up to seven feet long and exceed 2,000 pounds. They’re currently the last, living representatives of a family of turtles that traces its evolutionary roots back more than 100 million years. Yet now, these turtles may be going extinct–and quickly. Researchers estimate that in only 20 years, we could see the last of the leatherback sea turtles.
The announcement comes after a study was published this week in the journal Ecosphere. It estimates that a mere 500 leatherback turtles currently breed at their last, large nesting site in the Pacific. The population has plummetted from the thousands that previously nested there.
In order to track this decline, researchers examined population numbers from the 1980s and onward. In the past 27 years, the scientists noted that the western Pacific leatherback turtle numbers have dropped by a staggering 78 percent, placing its status firmly as critically endangered.
Currently, more than 75 percent of the population of these turtles nest at the remote Bird’s Head Peninsula on New Guinea. In the last breeding season alone, 489 turtles nested there. While this makes population numbers easier to track, it also makes the turtles a target. Local fishermen still capture and kill leatherbacks in order to consume the meat. In addition, they also harvest the turtle eggs that are laid.
Humans impacts aren’t the only threats these turtles have to contend with, though. On some beachs as few as 20 percent of eggs hatch due to increased beach temperatures. These temperatures could further worsen due to climate change, leaving fewer viable offspring.
“If the decline continues, leatherback turtles will become extinct in the Pacific Ocean within 20 years,” said Than Wibbels, a member of the research team studying the turtles, in an interview with Reuters.
It’s not all grim, though. The Atlantic leatherback, which is genetically different from the Pacific leatherback, has made a comeback in recent years. Due to mutual country agreements to ban harvesting adults or eggs on beaches, they have been able to reproduce successfully and rebuild population numbers. If the same can be done for the Pacific leatherback, the turtle may be able to avoid extinction.