A group of sea turtles off the coast of central Africa offered scientists a lesson in international diplomacy this week. Marine conservationists have been tracking olive ridley turtles via satellite to prevent them from getting tangled in fishing nets. Unfortunately, these ocean mariners regularly wash up on the Atlantic shores of Gabon and the Republic of Congo, despite two national parks meant to protect them.

The deaths have perplexed managers of Gabon’s Mayumba National Park and the Congo Republic’s Conkouati-Douli National Park. So WCS and partners began following the turtles’ whereabouts from high above. They attached satellite transmitters to the shells of 18 female olive ridleys to learn which waters they use during nesting season. This is the most dangerous time for these sea turtles. The closer they are to shore, the closer they come to the grasp of fishing nets.

“Thousands of olive ridley sea turtles are caught every year in fishing nets along the coast of Central Africa, yet we previously had no understanding of their movements or what areas are critical to protect their populations,” said Maxwell, a postdoctoral fellow with Marine Conservation Institute.

To the conservationists’ chagrin, the transmitters revealed that the turtles don’t restrict their movements to protected waters.

“What we found, however, made sense,” said Angela Formia of WCS’s Ocean Giants program. “Turtles were regularly moving outside of the park boundaries where we believe they were encountering fishing nets and drowning, and later washing ashore where we would see them.”

With the turtles’ comings and goings revealed, the conservationists can protect them more fully. WCS is working with the national park agencies of both countries to expand the boundaries of their protected waters across their national borders. Doing so would create the region’s first international marine park. The largest breeding population of leatherback sea turtles also swims the area's waters and nests on Gabon's beaches.

The study’s results illustrate why countries often must cooperate with each other in order to protect the species that they share. After all, sea turtles pay no attention where one country ends and another begins.

To follow tagged sea turtles online, visit seaturtle.org.