Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“We hold one key principle: not only do we work with the turtles, we work with the people too.”
On his first visits to schools on Nicaragua’s Pacific beaches, marine biologist José Urteaga would usually get the same answers to his question, “How many of you have seen a leatherback?” Out of 50 children, only five would raise their hands. “How many of you have eaten turtle eggs?” To this question, most would indicate they had.
The Nicaraguan Pacific is one of the key nesting areas in the Americas for leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), the largest of all the sea turtle species. However, it is estimated that the population of nesting females there has declined by 90 percent in the last 10 to 15 years.
In this highly impoverished area, this prehistoric reptile has been synonymous with sustenance for local communities. The eggs, meat, and carapace (shell) are easily sold and usually generate more income than working in traditional activities such as agriculture. International conservation organization Fauna and Flora International (FFI) has found that the eggs from a single nest, around eight dozen, sell for approximately US $17, more than six times the daily wage for a local resident.
Question: What was the nesting population of leatherbacks in Nicaragua when you started this project?
Urteaga: We came in with data from the 1980s that said it was possible to find around 100 nests per night on Pacific beaches, such as Veracruz de Acayo. However, during our first season in 2002, October through April, we found only 22 nests, which was similar to other beaches. The populations had clearly collapsed in Nicaragua.
Q: Reports say that the abrupt decline of leatherback populations started in the early 1980s, and today they are critically endangered. What has caused such a rapid decline in such a short period of time?
Urteaga: There are several causes. In Nicaragua, we can begin with the pillaging of nests for eggs. Egg extraction has always happened, based on beliefs that the eggs have aphrodisiac powers, but it used to be done only for local consumption. Now, there is massive extraction because the market grew and expanded into urban areas, increasing demand.
More recently, other threats affecting the marine ecosystem have arisen. For example, shark fishing took off in recent years, which has resulted in the incidental capture of sea turtles, especially in the large longline fisheries that operate in South American waters where the turtles migrate after nesting. Nesting habitat is being destroyed at the hands of tourism and private real estate developers — this is just beginning to happen on Nicaragua’s coasts, but it is a definite trend. Climate change is also considered a factor — in recent decades the Pacific has been ravaged by the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, affecting marine species. For example, it has been noted that the leatherbacks in the Pacific are smaller and lay fewer eggs in comparison with those of the Caribbean, and their populations are also smaller.
Q: Are the communities where you work concerned about the loss of the species or the income the turtles represent?
Urteaga: I don’t know if they understand precisely what this problem means, but they are concerned. These people do not take eggs or hunt turtles on a whim or because they are bad. It’s because they survive on wildlife extraction — they have immediate needs to meet and, in this case, the turtles are a means to feed their children. But the communities are clearly experiencing a sense of loss toward their ecosystem — the only thing they have — and therefore, toward their quality of life.
Q: How did you factor in the needs of the local communities when you considered how best to help the turtle population?
Urteaga: We hold one key principle — not only do we work with the turtles, we work with the people too. The project’s purpose is to protect nesting sites and help the leatherback population recover, but we can’t just close down beaches and put guards there. For the project to really function, we had to create better social, economic, and political conditions for the communities that depend on the species, and involve them in the conservation project itself.
So we partnered with local NGOs and cooperative agencies such as the German Service for Development (DED) whose focus is social development. In this way, we combine their goals to improve income and reduce poverty with habitat protection, which is our strength. We have created alternative sources of income through organic agriculture; solar energy; the “knitting for nature” project, where local women make purses out of recycled plastic bags; and we even hire former egg collectors or nest plunderers as beach guards, positions that are in curiously high demand. We are also promoting sustainable tourism development that does not compromise traditional livelihoods, such as farming, but that is in the hands of the local people — because tourism that enriches foreign investors won’t help — and that promotes the turtles as a tourism attraction, which provides more resources for the community than exploiting them.
We also work with authorities from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) on decisions and policy-making. We are collaborating on the creation of a national initiative to protect leatherbacks and the “I don’t eat turtle eggs or use tortoiseshell” campaign, which is aimed at markets in Managua. We also raise awareness by giving environmental education workshops, holding turtle festivals and turtle releases, and working more with children in the local primary schools.
Q: What have you done specifically to conserve turtle populations?
Urteaga: We have increased the area covered by the project. It began on a key leatherback nesting site, and now is working on three beaches — the Río Escalante-Chacocente Wildlife Refuge and the Juan Venado and Salamina beaches. In addition, by making overflights along the coast, we were able to identify and include two important beaches for olive ridley (Lepidochelys oliveacea) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles. Among the five sites, it could be said that we cover up to 300 nests in a good season. This means that we are protecting 90 percent of the turtle nests along a total of 34 miles (55 kilometers) of beaches.
We established protocols for the creation and management of turtle hatcheries, fenced-in nests where eggs collected from the beach are placed and incubate under safe, controlled conditions. This has allowed us to release more than 34,000 sea turtle hatchlings so far, including leatherbacks, black turtles (Chelonia agassisi), and olive ridleys.
To attack the problem of accidental turtle capture in fisheries, we are teaching fishers how to release trapped turtles, and we are promoting the use of fishing gear that is less harmful to the turtles.
Q: Have these positive, tangible results motivated the communities?
Urteaga: They certainly have, and not just the people who were making a living from the turtles. Every day, there are more organizations and even hotels and businesses interested in conserving sea turtles. This is why I would never say that the project’s achievements are ours alone — they are the outcome of collaborations with local actors, organizations, and institutions. Networking is one of the fundamental keys to a successful conservation initiative.
Q: What are the project’s main challenges?
Urteaga: I would say there are two major challenges. The first is gaining attention and commitment from the highest political levels so that they become more involved in conservation. We need solid policies and assurance that national development plans do not compromise the viability of our ecosystems. Then, we must consolidate the economic alternatives that we are proposing and implement them in the communities so that, instead of depending on wildlife, the inhabitants enjoy sustainable livelihoods. There is also a third challenge, something that is ongoing for organizations like ours — finding funding and ensuring resources for the project.
Q: Will the leatherbacks survive?
Urteaga: There has been a positive change in attitudes toward conservation in the local communities and in the city, but real change appears to be in the new generations. We must continue to work in the cities and on the coast in order to make profound changes in how our society behaves toward nature. Sustaining the species is a challenge that requires that we keep the battle going long enough for the turtles to survive until that change happens.