“Does the world need leatherback turtles? Most likely not,” wrote Andrew C. Revkin last week on Dot Earth, his New York Times sustainability blog. Boy, was that a can of worms to open. Revkin’s post described the “Great Turtle Race," an awareness campaign in which eleven tagged leatherback turtles raced to reach the International Date Line. Two days later, Revkin clarified his views on the word “need” in another post with the fitting title, “How Much Nature is Enough?”
Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Photo: Scott R. Benson, NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center
Some animals will go extinct anyway. So is conservation necessarily about picking battles? Permit me to explain with a New York metaphor.
Getting on the subway at rush hour, you need two things: breathing room and transportation to work. When a very crowded train comes, you realize you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot of breathing room in order to get to work—because you need to be at work on time more than you need the surplus breathing space that would allow you to, say, peruse the latest copy of Audubon Magazine in peace.
So how much do we need the leatherback? At up to 6.5 feet long and over a thousand pounds, it’s the largest living sea turtle, can live for up to 40 years, and has been around since the Cretaceous period (144 to 65 million years ago). In short, it’s a pretty cool reptile. Leatherbacks eat mostly jellyfish, and their hatchlings are food for sea birds and mammals. But according to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, the female leatherback’s global population declined 78 percent between 1982 and 1996, less than a generation, due to egg poaching, hunting and ocean pollution—hence conservation campaigns like the turtle race.
Back on Revkin’s blog, the need question remained unsettled. On Monday, three heavy hitters—Sylvia Earle, Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute, and turtle expert James Spotila—weighed in with three reasons to save the leatherback (and endangered species in general). First reason: A species might be useful to us in ways we haven’t anticipated. Second: Aesthetics. (“Leatherback hatchlings
are cute,” the experts wrote. Does that mean we don’t need eels?) Third: Nature for nature’s sake.
The third reason is the one that resonates most with me. Saving a species only because we need it, or might need it, is a bit Machiavellian for my taste. Even presuming to know exactly why we might save a species is giving ourselves a little too much credit for knowing it all. Whether we need the leatherback is not of particular issue to me; the world needs it, probably in some ways we don’t even see.
That said, Revkin makes an enormously insightful point in his June 2 post: Humans are the first species to be somewhat in control of what happens to the leatherback—and even more extraordinary is the fact that we’re aware of it. So what is our obligation? And how can we manage our environment responsibly if we’re humble enough to admit we don’t fully understand the greater role of, say, a mouse or a squid or a leatherback? It’s not ridiculous to consider species’ usefulness in human terms, because at the end of it, we can only speak for ourselves. We, like any other species, are evolved to act for our own benefit.
I couldn’t have thought of a better end to this story than the one that came straight from nature itself. Today, the Associated Press reported that National Park Service workers found leatherback eggs and tracks on South Padre Island, in Texas, for the first time since the 1930s. Who could’ve predicted it? From whatever combination of destruction and preservation we’ve accomplished thus far, the leatherback seems to have found its own way to stay in the game.