Editor's note: Retirement from the National Park Service after three decades didn't end Rick Smith's work as a ranger. One of the tasks that fills his schedule these days is volunteering to train rangers in Nicaragua who focus not just on safeguarding rare Hawksbill turtles that come ashore but also on seeing the populations of this marine species grow. Mr. Smith recently returned from Nicaragua, where he was fortunate to work with rangers who protected two turtles long enough so they could be outfitted with transmitters that wildlife biologists hope will provide some insights into this species.
Who would have figured the stir that a couple of turtles would generate?
I was in Nicaragua in late June working with community rangers who are employees of a non-governmental organization known as Paso Pacífico. I was on a beach observing something I had never seen before, something that hardly anyone gets to witness these days. Two Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) had come ashore to nest on the beach that Paso Pacífico’s rangers patrol. Hawksbill turtles are one of the most critically endangered of the marine sea turtles. Very few records exist of Hawksbill nesting on the western beaches of Central America. Moreover, scientists know little about their migration patterns or about their population numbers.
The rangers who discovered the two turtles kept them on the beach for two days, keeping their heads covered with wet towels and occasionally pouring water over their backs, so these unwitting reptilian volunteers could help scientists learn more about their dwindling species.
During the second day, a turtle expert from a regional program known as Project Hawksbill came and in cooperation with Paso Pacífico and the employees of MARENA (The Ministry of Natural Resources in Nicaragua) affixed a digital transmitter on the shells of the turtles using a special epoxy. So rigged, these transmitters should allow the turtles’ travels to be tracked when they come to the surface to breath during the next year or two.
This transmitter tagging was no small event. Children were released from school to observe the installation. Officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources were there, as were representatives of the media. It was very emotional when the children applauded when the second turtle returned to the sea after being liberated. I am sure none of them will become turtle egg poachers in the future.
Everyone recognized that the real heroes of this event were the rangers who work for Paso Pacífico, a non-profit organization founded in 2005 to focus on restoring and protecting the endangered ecosystems along the Pacific slope of Central America. The program activities of this relatively young organization aim to conserve ecosystem processes operating at a landscape scale. Thus, we pair forest conservation efforts with complementary actions in the coastal and near-shore marine environments. Paso Pacífico currently focuses its conservation efforts on southewestern Nicaragua, where we are developing the Paso del Istmo Biological Corridor, a series of private protected areas connected through sustainably managed landscapes.
Sea turtles are an important target for Paso Pacífico’s conservation efforts. Four different species nest along Pacific beaches of Southern Nicaragua, these are: Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivaceae), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), and Pacific Green (Chelonia mydas). Despite its global importance as a locale for sea turtle reproduction, sea turtle nest poaching is widespread. At unprotected beaches, nearly 100 percent of nests located are lost. Local people and fishermen track the beaches at night for nesting turtles, and upon finding a nest they immediately harvest all eggs. Although there is variation among species, one sea turtle nest may provide up to ten dozen turtle eggs. Poachers sell captured sea turtle eggs to middlemen who take the eggs to urban centers where they are sold at public markets and restaurants throughout Nicaragua. Local people who initially sell the eggs receive between a $1.5 USD and $3 USD per dozen eggs.
The sea turtle egg trade in Nicaragua is influenced by the pervasiveness of rural poverty and the culture of turtle eggs as food. Nicaragua has the smallest economy in Latin America and the second lowest Gross Domestic Product. Poverty is most prevalant in rural areas, including along the coast. Local people turn to the sea turtle egg trade as a way to supplement their small cash incomes from subsistence farming and artisanal fishing.
Nicaraguans have long consumed sea turtle eggs. It is believed that sea turtle eggs were an important food source for pre-colombian settlements in coastal areas. During the Contra War of the 1980s, the scarcity of food and protein led to an increase in the sale and consumption of turtle eggs throughout the country. Today, Nicaraguan people express a preference for the flavor of sea turtle eggs and a belief that they have a superior nutritional value over chicken eggs.
The long-term goal of the Paso Pacífico sea turtle conservation program is to protect endangered sea turtles in partnership with local communities. The specific objectives are to: 1) reduce conflict between communities and natural resource managers near the La Flor Wildlife Refuge, 2) effectively decrease poaching and increase protection for solitary nesting sea turtles, 3) promote alternative sources of income that are tied to conservation for the benefit of local people.
The first goal was met through a series of conflict resolution meetings with the two local communities most involved with turtle egg poaching in Paso Pacífico’s proposed biological corridor. To meet the second goal, Paso Pacífico announced that it would be hiring six community-based rangers who would patrol selected isolated beaches and protect the nests there. Of the six selected, four were former egg poachers. This is the first time that any of these people have had full-time jobs, demonstrating to the communities that conservation can pay. As for the third goal, it is believed that economic need in the communities drives much of the turtle egg poaching activity. Thus, any attempt to reduce poaching must also include an effort to address the root problem. In recent years, conservation programs throughout the world have had success using direct payments to reward local people for their successful participation in sea turtle conservation. Performance-based incentives are being applied to sea turtle conservation programs in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, and Suriname.
The Paso Pacífico program allows for incentive payments benefiting both local people and the general community. First, individuals receive a nominal payment upon committing to protect a nest ($10 - $20/nest). Then, when turtle eggs are successfully hatched and verified by Paso Pacífico rangers and a community committee, both the ‘protector’ and the community fund receive a second and larger payment of between ten and thirty cents per hatchling. The payment amount varies by species with the more endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles receiving the highest payment amounts. The community fund accumulated throughout the year and at the end of the year, the community leadership decides how to use the money.
The performance-based payments program is also providing incentives to the Paso Pacífico rangers by rewarding them a bonus payment for every nest that they successfully monitor. This payment is given at the end of the year. Also, a bonus award is made to one ranger who has successfully protected the most nests during the year. Awards given to the rangers are given in a public forum in front of the entire community. Paso Pacífico also selected a number of community guides who are available to provide guide service to visitors to the area, including guided sea kayak trips. This is another income-generating activity.
I am a member of Paso Pacífico’s Board of Directors and have been involved for the last two years in training the community-based rangers who work for Paso Pacífico. These rangers patrol unprotected beaches to protect turtle nests from poaching. We started right from the beginning—what does a ranger look like, what do they do, how do they deal with people who don’t share Paso Pacífico’s conservation goals, how to work together, how to respond to supervision, etc. It was slow going during the first session last year, but I was somewhat encouraged by the fact that members of the Nicaraguan Army—the army patrols some of the beaches managed by the government—and several government rangers from the nearby wildlife refuge, La Flor, where turtle nesting occurs, also attended the training. The second training session that I did a couple weeks ago was a real eye-opener. The rangers had improved a lot in self-confidence and their ability to communicate. All were very enthusiastic about what they were doing. They report that the number of egg poachers is slowly declining and that the incentive program is having a positive effect.
The key for Paso Pacífico will be to make this program sustainable. We are looking for donations from all sources to assure that we can keep the rangers working and provide the financial incentives we have established. If any Traveler readers would like to contribute, please contact me and I will get you the necessary information.
I have worked a lot in Latin American conservation. I have never, however, become involved with any of the NGOs that work in the area. I chose this one, though, because it is truly a grassroots organization with all the work being done by Nicaraguans in Nicaragua. Its community-based conservation program is the only one that will work in a country like Nicaragua.
Footnote: You can track the movements of these two turtles at www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=295&dyn=1246546646. On the lefthand side of the page you will find our two turtles, "Karen" and "Brasilia." (The children named the second turtle Brasilia.) Click on the names of the turtles to see their movements. Brasilia had laid her eggs before the rangers nabbed her. Karen had not. It is likely that she will return to the same beach to lay her eggs.