Turtles on the Upswing

ENCOURAGING NEWS COMES FROM the beaches of Tortuguero, Costa Rica, where endangered green sea turtles nest by the thousands. Continuing an upward trend, the 2005 nesting season was one of the busiest on record with a total of 91,615 sea turtle nests recorded over a 4-month period. Researchers from the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) documented that in one night alone, sea turtles laid 3,000 nests on a 21-mile section of beach. In spite of poachers, beach disturbances, and turtle-eating jaguars, Tortuguero’s sea turtle population is growing steadily. “What we’re seeing are the positive benefits of long-term conservation,” explains Dan Evans of the CCC’s education program.

Located in northern Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero supports the largest nesting population of green sea turtles in the Atlantic Ocean. By day the sand tells the story of the evening’s activity where rows of perfectly parallel turtle tracks cover the beach. Some of the tracks lead past the high tide mark to the deep pits the turtles dig to lay their eggs, while others only reach halfway up the beach and head back to the water. Researchers call those tracks “half moons,” when a turtle starts the egg-laying process but then changes her mind and returns to the sea. At night, it’s much harder to track the turtles’ activity. The black sand reflects the darkness of the night sky, and unless the moon is clearly visible, it’s nearly impossible to see.

Scientists and volunteers have been patrolling this beach since 1955 when renowned scientist Archie Carr set up a turtle-monitoring program with his students, friends, and family. At the time, Tortuguero’s green sea turtle population seemed on the verge of collapse. But in the years that followed, Carr and his successors at the CCC led a sea turtle campaign that helped sea turtle nesting populations rise from a low of 19,731 nests in 1972 to an all-time high of 92,523 nests in 1998. In half a century they established a permanent research station, welcomed the start of the ecotourism boom, developed a model volunteer research assistant program, and became an international force for sea turtle conservation. The data generated by the CCC’s nearly 50 years of sea turtle work has helped scientists understand the mysteries of the sea turtle and develop strategies to protect it.

CCC’s presence in Costa Rica has had positive effects on the people of Tortuguero as well. CCC collaborates with the local government, provides a variety of jobs, participates in school programs, and assists resident entrepreneurs with their ecotourism ventures. “The community has really shifted and embraces the idea that a sea turtle is worth more alive than dead,” Evans explains. Instead of killing turtles for their meat or shells, villagers can make money by hosting, guiding, or providing services to tourists coming to see the turtles.

Beginning in 1997, the scientists added a new data set to their study when beach-going jaguars started to regularly visit Tortuguero. Based on tracks, motion sensor video, and chance encounters, the researchers have determined that at least one adult male and one female and her cubs are coming out of Tortuguero National Park’s forest to feed on nesting sea turtles. CCC Scientific Director Sebastian Troëng estimates that jaguars kill about 100 of Tortuguero’s sea turtles each year, and although that number may seem high, Both Evans and Troëng agree that jaguars eating turtles are part of a natural process that doesn’t pose a threat to Tortuguero’s thriving sea turtle population. For more information about CCC and their volunteer program, visit ccc@cccturtle.org or call 1-800-678-7853.

Published in Americas magazine: By Chris Hardman

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