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World Reports

Balancing on a turtle’s back

Each year, on a few dark nights in a secluded cove of Panama's Azuero Peninsula, thousands of olive ridley sea turtles emerge from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs in the sand. Each one, out of water for perhaps the first time since birth, heaves her cumbersome body to dry land where she performs a slow ritual, using her back flippers as shovels to dig a hole more than a foot deep. There she lays up to 80 golf-ball-sized eggs, all coated in a clear gooey liquid. She then packs and brushes the sand over the nest to hide any trace of the nest below.

Campesinos from Guanico Abajo, the village nearest the sea turtles' nesting grounds, have always collected sea turtle eggs as a supplemental food source for their families. The small quantities they collected would probably not have threatened the survival of sea turtles. It's only in the last five years that commercial markets for turtle eggs have developed in Panama City's high-end restaurants. Before, only a few families harvested eggs for personal consumption; poachers now arrive from faraway towns and leave with sacks full of eggs.

The problem wouldn't be so serious if the turtle's natural survival rate were not so low. A mature olive ridley turtle can lay up to 300 eggs a year. Of those, about 90 percent will hatch. Predation by vultures, raccoons, and a host of other animals reduces the immediate survival rate to only 5 percent, or about 15 baby turtles making it into the crashing waves. Of the original 300 eggs, just one will reach sexual maturity in the deep sea. When poor farmers wait with empty sacks on the beach every night, and beaches are developed for commerce, and destructive fishing practices kill turtles at sea, that number drops swiftly to zero. All seven species of sea turtles are endangered; five of them nest on Panama's beaches.

The Panamanian government would have trouble telling its people to give up income. Funding beach patrols is an even greater challenge. The fact that the locals who derive income from egg collection are destroying their natural capital rarely fits into the equation.

In Guanico Abajo, the Panamanian Environmental Authority is implementing an innovative sustainable management strategy that just might benefit both the sea turtles and the egg collectors. Instead of indiscriminately harvesting as many eggs as possible, the Environmental Authority has divided the beach into sections based on hatching rate. Eggs laid in the center of the beach are off limits to collectors. But eggs laid at the beach's peripheries, where two streams often flood the beach and destroy the eggs, can be collected. In addition, a hatchery has been set up where a certain percentage of eggs from the peripheries are placed and guarded until they hatch. A committee of egg collectors from Guanico Abajo is in charge of managing the beach and the hatchery, with the help of an Environmental Authority representative. The price of eggs is set to ensure a high price for the committee, and only certified buyers are allowed to purchase the eggs to avoid poaching and black markets. In theory, the plan can both preserve turtle populations and maintain much-needed income for the rural poor.

Unfortunately, that theory isn't reflected in practice. The committee has no authority to stop poachers, who often come armed with machetes to collect as much as they can from any part of the beach. The poachers sell their eggs below the committee's set price, so that legal eggs often can't find buyers. Accusations fly that local officials accept bribes to look the other way when rules are broken. No egg buyers have been certified. The hatchery lacks management - no one keeps track of how many nests were transferred, if and when they hatched, or how many hatched. The morale of the committee is low - sales are bad because of the poachers, and the added effort of implementing the management plan doesn't seem worth it if others can easily skirt the rules. A few members would rather see a complete ban on egg collection, but most are just trying to protect their own meager incomes.

But it's not all bad news. This year, thousands of baby turtles were guarded on their treacherous walk to the ocean. Because so many eggs are laid in a single night, they tend to hatch at once. Members of the committee, onlookers, and children all tiptoed over the beach waving their arms at the diving vultures and frigatebirds to keep them away. So instead of only 5 percent of baby turtles reaching the water, closer to 90 percent did. While clearly no one is keeping records, this could offset extra losses caused by over-collecting.

In nearby Costa Rica, management strategies such as this one, combined with income from ecotourism, have been successfully implemented to protect these amazing reptiles. The program in Guanico Abajo is only two years old, so growing pains can be expected. If this project can successfully increase survival rates and maintain a local business, it can be a model for similar sustainable management plans in Panama. There is a long way to go in Panama, but it's a step in the right direction.

Take Action: Visit a beach in Panama or another Central America country where turtles lay eggs. Your presence as an eco-minded tourist will promote turtle conservation among the local population. For more information about sea turtle conservation, visit the Sea Turtle Restoration Project at www.seaturtles.org.

   

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