[Updated at 2:59 p.m. ET] Hundreds of endangered leatherback turtle hatchlings and eggs were crushed over the weekend when attempts to stop erosion on a tourist beach in Trinidad went badly wrong, according to conservationists.
Workers were redirecting a river that was endangering a major nesting habitat for leatherback turtles and encroaching on local hotels and businesses in Grande Riviere, a popular tourist spot on the Caribbean island's north coast.
However, the workers severely damaged a nesting area with a bulldozer and an excavator, killing or harming hundreds of unhatched turtle eggs, the local conservation groups said.
A statement from the Environmental Management Authority acknowledged that hundreds of turtles had been killed during attempts to divert the river's course.
"If left on its current course, the existing route of the river would have caused more erosion and loss to previous nesting sites," the EMA said. "The EMA believes that this emergency action will have some positive impact on the overall population of leatherback turtles nestling in Grande Riviere."
A rescue attempt did manage to save some of the turtle hatchlings, but local conservationists say they're demanding a meeting with government officials to prevent the situation from happening again.
"It is important to investigate how this was allowed to happen and to find a solution so this won't reoccur in future," said Marc de Verteuil of Papa Bois Conservation, which works in Trinidad and Tobago.
De Verteuil said the beach had been suffering from erosion for weeks. He said the shoreline and river edge should have been stabilized, rather than the "very intrusive major earthworks" that ended up taking place.
The beach is a major nesting ground for leatherback turtles, listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Thousands of turtles return to the area where they were born to dig burrows in the sand and lay their eggs during nesting season, according to local conservation groups.
The area attracts thousands of tourists at the height of turtle nesting season each year to watch the baby turtles try to make it from their nests to the sea.
Laying as many as 100 eggs at a time, leatherback turtles – the only sea turtles with soft shells – face many survival threats, mostly from humans. The eggs are harvested, or once in the water, the hatchlings may fall victim to fishing and boat strikes. Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings is estimated to make it to adulthood, according to National Geographic.
Some studies have predicted the leatherback turtle could be extinct on the west coast of America within 10 to 15 years, said Peter Richardson of the Marine Conservation Society. However, populations in the Atlantic region seem to be doing better, with Trinidad reporting rising numbers in recent years, according to Richardson.
In West Africa, a team of international scientists has estimated that as many as 40,000 female turtles are nesting on beaches in Gabon, making it the world's largest known leatherback turtle population.