Seaturtle Conservation and Environmental Education

 
$15,081
$4,919
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Dec 13, 2011

'Mummy, what were sea turtles?'

An Olive Ridley hatchling about to be liberated
An Olive Ridley hatchling about to be liberated

'Mummy, what were sea turtles?' It might seem a little far-fetched to pose this question right now, but it is one that parents may find themselves answering to their children sooner than one might expect. After all, there are places in the world where sea turtles appear to be abundant and one could be forgiven for assuming, whilst snorkeling amongst the apparently plentiful Hawksbill turtles of Indonesia, or the Green turtles of the Caribbean, that these graceful reptiles are doing ok. It might come as a surprise then that, in fact, there are only seven species of sea turtle left, all of which are in danger of extinction, three of them critically. Moreover, global populations of all seven species have reduced by around 80% in the last 20 years! Clearly something is going terribly wrong for sea turtles, but what is it? Well of course there is a combination of factors at work here, all of which are in some way brought about by humans and the rapid development of our built environment over the last few hundred years.

 

At first glance, sea turtles appear to be built to last. Indeed turtles have survived in more or less their present form for some 200 million years, evolving around the same time as the dinosaurs but outliving them by 65 million years so far. The almost impenetrable protective carapace of the sea turtle, formed from the fusion of ribs in a robust exoskeleton, means that adults have very few natural predators, and it is the secret of their survival. The story is very different for young sea turtles though and, in a perfect illustration of evolution's survival of the fittest, only 1 in every 1000 eggs is thought to survive to become a sexually mature adult - that's about one turtle in every 10 nests. In the wild, where nests are at the mercy of the changing tides and shifting sands, many hatchlings die simply trying to climb out, and many eggs are consumed by natural predators such as raccoons, crabs, and ants. Once out of the nest the hatchlings face the most dangerous moments of their life as they make their journey down the beach to the beckoning surf, during which birds and crabs are able to pick off scores of baby turtles, especially if a nest hatches during the day. It is during these first phases of the life cycle, however, where the use of a hatchery at conservation programs, like that of the Corcovado Foundation's Sea Turtle Conservation Program in Drake Bay, can function to tip the balance a little in favor of the turtles. Hatcheries provide a safe and controlled environment in which to incubate nests, protected from many natural predators and the high tides, and the hatchlings are treated to a team of volunteer bodyguards ready to marshal their first journey into the sea and dissuade any would-be predators on the beach. Once in the open ocean, however, turtles face a new spectrum of predators, and some species are known to quickly find refuge in floating kelp beds, where they are thought to hide and feed for perhaps the first five years of their lives. For other species, like the Olive Ridleys of Drake Bay, we simply don't know for sure where they go.

 

But what of the human factors that have brought about the demise of sea turtles? The story of the interaction between people and turtles is long and convoluted, and sea turtles have been used for eggs, meat, carapace, oil, leather or other products since at least 5000 BC. But whilst such consumptive use by ancient and indigenous peoples, such as the Mesoamerican Mayas and other Amerindians, was relatively sustainable, sea turtle utilization became unsustainable with the onset of the colonial era during which millions of turtles were caught and kept alive as a long-term fresh food source for ships' crews, and for export to European markets. Today, intentional capture of sea turtles continues using nets, harpoons and traps in feeding grounds, along with incidental capture by indiscriminate fishing practices, such as 'long-lining', causing drastic declines in global populations. The majority of sea turtle nesting sites are located in tropical regions, often in countries with developing economies where the turtle trade, whilst illegal, is still considered an income source. At nesting beaches in Central America, such as those of Drake Bay, decades of systematic egg poaching by locals has resulted in the near eradication of certain nesting species, such as the East Pacific Leatherback and Hawksbill turtles, and has caused the population of Olive Ridley turtles, the most abundant species in the region, to become endangered.

 

Irresponsible tourism, including the riding of horses or quad bikes on beaches, where they can destroy nests, and the construction of beachfront hotels and businesses, has led to the large-scale destruction of sea turtle nesting habitat worldwide. Light pollution from such development has an especially negative impact, as light dissuades females from emerging from the sea to nest and causes newly-born hatchlings, who inherit an instinct to head to the brightest part of the beach, to crawl towards hotels and street lighting instead of the white surf of the ocean. But perhaps the most lethal man-made geo-biological disaster of the last 60 years has been the disposal of non-biodegradable plastics in rivers all over the world, ultimately destined for the oceans where they will take hundreds or maybe even thousands of years to break down. Fine suspensions of plastic particulates on the surface of the oceans choke and smother marine reptiles and, enticed by their shiny colorful and organic appearance, turtles increasingly eat or become tangled in plastic waste and discarded fishing gear, usually with deadly consequences.

 

What would a world without turtles be like? Well, one further stripped of its once vibrant biodiversity`- a world less beautiful, and with fewer species for our children to enjoy and appreciate. But the ecological consequences could be even more severe. Sea turtles are keystone species in coastal and oceanic marine ecosystems, and the natural predation of their eggs transfers vital nutrients from marine to terrestrial ecosystems. Each species also fulfills a specific ecological role, such as the Green turtle for example, which consumes vast quantities of sea grass and keeps it cut short, permitting the continued growth of the grass and the survival of the myriad species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans which call it home. The extinction of sea turtles would also bring about the collapse of the very eco-tourism industry intended to facilitate their conservation, resulting in the loss of revenue and jobs within developing communities where they are desperately needed.

 

So what can people who live in developed countries far away from nesting turtles do to help? Well, recycling and the responsible use and disposal of plastic waste, especially plastic bags, should obviously be a priority for every conscientious modern household, and information is increasingly available at local supermarkets and restaurants that allows one to be confident of consuming only seafood that is sustainably sourced, and not caught using indiscriminate fishing practices. Whilst on vacation in tropical regions be sure to ask the owners of your beachfront hotel what measures are being taking to dispose of waste responsibly and limit light pollution. Always turn your lights off at night. Don't stray onto nesting beaches on horse-riding or quad-biking tours, and stay off nesting beaches at night unless participating in a bona-fide turtle watching eco-tour. Denounce the sale of turtle products wherever you find them, and most importantly of all, lend your financial support to conservation efforts such as that of the not-for-profit Corcovado Foundation's Sea Turtle Conservation Program in Drake Bay. Every cent donated is dedicated to the fight against illegal egg poaching and the development of long-term socio-economic alternatives for local people in the region - sustainable income generated from the non-consumptive use of sea turtles. Thank you for your generous support!

Beach development and light pollution
Beach development and light pollution
Sea turtle meat for sale in a Costa Rican market
Sea turtle meat for sale in a Costa Rican market
A sea turtle attempts to eat a plastic bag
A sea turtle attempts to eat a plastic bag
An egg poacher at work
An egg poacher at work

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Dec 12, 2011

Turtle Season Update, 4 months of great outcomes!

The first four months of the 2011 season of the Sea Turtle Conservation Program at Drake Bay have witnessed numerous firsts. For the first time in the history of the program a Pacific Green turtle has been registered and tagged whilst nesting on Drake Beach, culminating in the successful relocation and incubation of several Pacific Green turtle nests in the hatchery. The timely completion of the hatchery this year – the biggest constructed to date – has also meant that 90% of the nests found on the beach have been safely relocated to the secure enclosure, reducing the incidence of nest poaching to an all-time low of just 3.4%. The affiliation of two of the most professional and efficient ex-poachers in the community to the team has also helped to reduce poaching, but moreover the program has gained extraordinary new insight and skills which have demonstrably transformed the capabilities of the conservation effort.
But it is not just the turtles that have benefitted from the improvements to the program this year. In addition to equipping over 50 international volunteers with new conservation skills, the program has certified four more members of the local association of conservationists (ACOTPRO) as fully-trained leaders, bringing the total number contracted by the program to 19. Furthermore, the brand new network of homestays established in the village this year has already provided bed and board for 25 international volunteers working at the program, distributing cash from conservation throughout the ACOTPRO community, and giving birth to some beautiful new friendships and cultural exchanges in the process.
The team of biologists at the program has been expanded this year to include four research assistants from the USA, Spain and Australia, permitting the dedication of individual project managers to the delivery of each of the program objectives. In concert with staff from the Corcovado Foundation, research assistants Matthew Adams and Álvaro Amo are implementing a program of environmental education in three local schools, and also run activities for two out-of-school kids groups, known as The Jaguars and The Pumas, who are busy preparing performances and handicrafts for the forthcoming Turtle Festival. Newly recruited research assistant Caitlin Sullivan is project managing the festival but is also chief hatchery manager, presiding over the liberation of 2600 baby turtles so far this season. Research Assistant Kira James is conducting an original piece of research, using funds from a grant that she won competitively from the University of California, which aims to uncover how attitudes towards nature and conservation differ between local residents inside and outside of ACOTPRO, and how such attitudes may have changed over the last six years as a result of the program.  Finally, efforts to promote the program this year, led by the coordinator Rob James, have resulted in a record 12 tourist night patrols and the adoption of 20 nesting turtles, raising over $3000 in donations for the program.
 
The extraordinary generosity of those who have donated money to the program, combined with the effort and determination of the members of ACOTPRO, the research team, and the international volunteers who donate their time and energy in the name of conservation, together continue to permit the recuperation of the population of endangered sea turtles that nest in Drake Bay. Through its interactions with the young people from the community, the program continues to disseminate knowledge about the natural environment, raise awareness of the plight of the sea turtles, and foster a new generation of locals with an awareness of the importance of conserving natural resources. Only time will tell whether this will ultimately be enough to save the sea turtles from extinction in the region.


 
environmental education in El Progreso School
environmental education in El Progreso School
Hatchlings making their first trip to the ocean
Hatchlings making their first trip to the ocean
Coordinator Rob James liberating first hatchling
Coordinator Rob James liberating first hatchling

Links:

Dec 12, 2011

Launching the 2011 turtle conservation season

Constructing the hatchery for the 2011 season
Constructing the hatchery for the 2011 season

In 2006 the Corcovado Foundation initiated the Sea Turtle Project at Playa Drake in response to an appeal from locals in Drake Bay regarding the rapid disappearance of the nesting Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivácea) population. The project was established with three areas of focus: a conservation program using standardized scientific methods to promote the long-term survival of the nesting population, by protecting the turtle eggs from illegal poaching and natural predation; an  environmental education program to increase awareness of the negative impact of the exploitation of natural resources; and a development program led by an association of trained local leaders (ACOTPRO) designed to foment sustainable socio-economic alternatives for the community through ecotourism and regular contracted work at the project. With around 45.000 hatchlings released into the Pacific in five years, the demonstrable success of the project so far has in part been due to the application of rigorous conservation methods on the beaches.  However, the real success story lies in the transformation of the mentality and economy of the local community. By pursuing a policy of clarity, transparency and respect, the program has succeeded in empowering local people and equipping them with the skills and infrastructure to take control of their own economic future.

Now facing its sixth season, the project has taken several steps forward this year with increased collaboration and integration with the community. Members of ACOTPRO now benefit from the project directly through regular contracted turns leading patrols or managing the hatchery, and they take on further control over other aspects of the project as partners, including the management of the annual turtle festival. Another very positive development is the utilization of homestays within the local community to house the international volunteers. This initiative has proved to be extremely popular with both volunteers and local families, and facilitates further distribution of income throughout the ACOTPRO community, which now includes members from surrounding villages outside of El Progreso and Agujitas. Local leaders continue to act as guides for tourist night patrols and the Corcovado Foundation is helping to endorse and establish an increasing number of local ecotours and facilitate their integration into the tourist industry in Drake Bay. Consistent with the increase in academic interest in ecotourism and sustainable development, the turtle project has also begun to attract an increasingly diverse spectrum of volunteers who make available their specialized skills and experience to develop the various aspects of the project. It is hoped that the next phase of the project will see the emergence of a more permanent research station managed by ACOTPRO, attracting researchers wishing to support local development initiatives or to investigate the myriad local flora and fauna, bringing benefits to the community all year round and not just during the turtle nesting season.

This new form income for the community is driven by turtle conservation and the sustainable use of local natural
resources, and the creation of new regular contracted jobs in the small rural village of El Progreso has transformed local attitudes towards conservation efforts in the region. Preparations for the 2011 season have already been catalysed by the efforts of an unprecedented number of local volunteers, and it seems that the residents of Drake Bay may have awoken to the dawn of a new sustainable economic future that celebrates the unique and precious
biodiversity with which they have been so generously endowed. 

The hatchery completed
The hatchery completed
ACOTPRO leaders training course
ACOTPRO leaders training course

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Organization

Project Leader

Alejandra Monge

Moravia,, San Jose Costa Rica

Where is this project located?

Map of Seaturtle Conservation and Environmental Education