The olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is threatened both at sea and on its nesting beaches, but things are improving for the species along the Azuero Peninsula, on Panama’s Pacific coast, thanks to collaboration between conservationists and communities.
Several beaches on the Azuero Peninsula are vital for the survival of the olive ridley turtle, since those strands are the sites of “arribadas,” when thousands of turtles converge on a beach during certain nights of the year to bury their eggs in the sand. Just a few years ago, hundreds of people arrived at those beaches, primarily La Marinera, to collect turtle eggs for sale — a tradition that has long been an important source of local income, but is devastating to plummeting sea turtle populations.
But that situation has improved thanks to the conservation work of the Panama Foundation (Fundación Panamá), especially conservationist Lenin Riquelme, who visited the area four years ago to observe the spectacle of an arribada and in the process found his mission. Not only is the olive ridley turtle now protected in the region, but in addition people in local communities are benefiting from their conservation thanks to the money they earn from ecotourism.
The closest protected area to La Marinera beach is the Isla Cañas Wildlife Refuge, a national protected area that is internationally recognized for its importance as a sea turtle nesting site. La Marinera itself, however, currently benefits from no protected status and is under the jurisdiction of Panama’s Maritime Authority. Riquelme and the Panama Foundation have tried to find ways to protect the Azuero Peninsula’s nesting beaches. In coordination with the National Environment Authority (ANAM) and Panama’s Maritime Authority, Riquelme has sought funding for the purchase of land and developed a project to involve local communities in conservation efforts.
His efforts resulted in a new private reserve: the 247-acre (100-hectare) Juventino Frías Oda Reserve in Pachotal, south of La Marinera, which is administered by the Panama Foundation with funding from the government of Holland through the IUCN. The Maritime Authority supports the Foundation’s efforts to patrol the reserve, whereas the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — International Affairs Division funded an ecotourism project that has attracted the involvement of communities near 16 important sea turtle nesting beaches. Other beaches on the peninsula are nesting sites for sea turtles such as the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), black turtle (Chelonia agassizii), and possibly the loggerhead (Caretta caretta).
The ecotourism project has converted local communities into champions of conservation, not just of sea turtles but also the flora and fauna of the tropical dry forest, an ecosystem that once covered the peninsula but has been reduced to small, isolated remnants. Nearly 20,000 people in 20 communities along 30 miles (50 kilometers) of coastline are now involved in the project. Thanks to training from the Panama Foundation and ANAM, the residents, who once poached turtle eggs and destroyed forest, have learned to establish turtle hatcheries, and farm their land and graze cattle more sustainably to conserve soils and vegetation. Many families are also earning extra income from tourism.
“Our proposal was not to simply educate people about the sea turtles but to find ways that conservation could help them earn money,” Riquelme explains. He reports that residents have practically stopped digging up sea turtle nests to gather recently laid eggs. “In La Marinera alone, a beach that is a mere half-mile (800 meters) long, more than 35,000 turtles have nested and 1.3 million baby turtles have hatched since May of 2005,” he says.
The project has supported communities in the construction of huts and modification of rooms to meet the demands of the tourists who visit the area, most of whom are surfers or backpackers, as well as training in how to take care of such tourists, including basic English courses, a price structure for services offered, and contacts with tour agencies in Panama City. The project provided some construction materials, which the communities matched with in-kind contributions and the enthusiasm of tourism committee members.
Tourists pay approximately $10 per day for food and lodging, which has improved family incomes along the Azuero Peninsula’s coast. According to Lyneth Córdoba, head of the Isla Cañas Wildlife Refuge, the project’s concern for local people has meant that community members don’t perceive efforts to purchase land as a threat. Together with Riquelme, Córdoba helped found the NGO Conservation, Nature and Life (Conservación, Naturaliza y Vida) to guide future conservation efforts in the area.
“The communities understand that tourists don’t just go to these areas for the beach and tropical vegetation, but for the sea turtles, which are the principal attraction,” notes Córdoba.
Despite the success of this community-managed tourism initiative, efforts to conserve the region’s sea turtles and dry forests must still overcome the obstacle of high land prices along the coast, which has thus far impeded the purchase of land vital for the protection of nesting sites. Nevertheless, good relations with local landowners gives Riquelme the hope that he might convince some of them to sell parts of their farms at reasonable prices for conservation, such as a 10-acre (four-hectare) tract on La Marinera beach which, despite its vital importance for olive ridley arribadas, has yet to gain formal protection as a reserve.
Riquelme also believes it may possible to get the government to grant a marine concession for conservation. “If they grant concessions for economic exploitation, why can’t there be concessions for conservation, through which we also provide economic benefits to the country in the form of environmental services?” he asks.
In the meantime, his principal work in the area will focus on the communities, which have already come to realize that conservation is worth the effort.