Conserving Marine Turtles in the Eastern Pacific of Nicaragua

Current initiative

Published October 2018

Olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) - Photo By Bernard Gagnon [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Nicaragua is home to globally important populations of threatened marine turtles and two of just nine mass nesting arribada beaches worldwide are found here. Poaching of eggs and killing of hawksbills for their shells has been a serious threat to these species in Nicaragua. In response, FFI and partners are working in collaboration with coastal communities to turn the tide around and protect these species. Local people are now involved in beach patrols and build & manage turtle hatcheries, and are trained in monitoring techniques for data collection. Furthermore, local and national support for these marine reptiles is being catalysed through turtle festivals, education and awareness campaigns. The initiative has been highly successful: over 50% of the known population of hawksbill turtles in the entire eastern Pacific Ocean is now protected, leatherback nesting and hatchling success are increasing for the first time in decades; and poaching has significantly decreased, providing new hope for the recovery of these threatened species.

Location

Focused upon 5 important nesting sites:  

Hawksbill - Estero Padre Ramos Natural Reserve (12°46’46.42” N, 87°29’24.88” W ) and Aserradores Estuary (12°36’41.01” N, 87°20’22.62” W); 

Leatherback - Veracruz (within the Rio Escalante-Chacocente Wildlife Refuge 11°33'57.08” N, 86°14’06.16” W) and Salamina (11°59’27.59” N, 86°40’03.94” W); 

Olive ridleys - the mass nesting arribada beach at Chacocente (11° 31' 46.2'' N, 86° 10' 56.2584'' W).           

Nicaragua’s coastal and marine ecosystems are recognized as among the most important marine turtle habitats in the Americas. Nicaragua’s Pacific coast extends over 400km and supports globally significant populations of the Critically Endangered hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the Critically Endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) sub-population, as well as harboring two of just nine olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) “arribada” mass nesting beaches in the world.  

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Hawksbill Eretmochelys imbricate , Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea , Olive Ridley Turtle Lepidochelys olivacea

Products in trade

Marine turtle eggs - In Nicaragua, turtle eggs are a traditional, seasonal food source amongst coastal communities, where poverty rates are high.  Eggs are often consumed alongside alcohol, or as part of Catholic abstinence from meat products on a Friday.   
 
Hawksbill shell - Despite prohibitions on trade, international and domestic trade in hawksbill shell jewellery and articles remains a pervasive threat to these turtles globally. Recent research across nine Central American countries found Nicaragua accounted for 60% of all turtle shell articles available for sale (>7,000 articles) (Harrison et al., 2017). 

Overview of the problem

The global hawksbill turtle population has collapsed by an estimated 87% over the last three generations - and threatens the future viability of the species. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Eastern Pacific, where from Mexico to Ecuador, populations have collapsed to the point that they were deemed close to extinction in 2007 (Mortimer & Donnelly, 2008). Around 500 nesting females are estimated to remain in this once abundant and distinct Eastern Pacific population (Gaos et al., 2010). 

While leatherbacks are globally classified as Vulnerable, the distinct sub-population of leatherback turtles in the Eastern Pacific has suffered a historic collapse (Benson et al., 2015) and is now classified as Critically Endangered. Long-term analysis indicates that the population has plummeted by 97% over the past three generations, while nesting abundance has declined more than 90% since the 1980s, down to fewer than 500 nesting females (Wallace et al., 2013). Experts predict that without immediate conservation action, the Eastern Pacific leatherback could be extinct within the next generation. 

The medium-term trend for the Olive Ridley turtles in the Eastern Pacific is positive, although this needs to be confirmed through further years of monitoring and research.     

In Nicaragua, turtle eggs are a traditional, seasonal food source amongst coastal communities. Many coastal people, who depend on agriculture and fishing, are poor and lack security or sustainable alternatives.  They perceive turtles as a source of supplementary income, through poaching eggs or killing hawksbills for their shell, rather than as a valuable living asset of which they are beneficiaries and custodians.  

Improved road access in 1980s catalysed a shift from low-level extraction (by local community members) to intensified trade to supply urban markets (i.e. poachers arriving from urban areas, particularly to take eggs from the mass nesting beaches for olive ridleys). 

Illegal harvesting of eggs remains near 100% at nesting sites without conservation management and this remains the most significant threat to population recovery. Enforcement at priority nesting sites (as per project sites listed above), including the olive ridley mass nesting beaches in the south of Nicaragua's Pacific where partnership with the army protects nesting turtles.  

Despite increasing awareness and support for turtles, prosecution numbers remain low.  

The majority of raw hawksbill shell is thought to come from the Caribbean coast, where turtles are commonly poached by coastal community members for their meat.  

The anti-IWT initiative

Working in collaboration with local stakeholders - including coastal communities and local governments - is central to FFI's approach.  Through this initiative we have: 

  • Introduced beach patrols throughout the nesting season. 
  • Established (with effective management) turtle hatcheries. 
  • Trained community patrol teams in monitoring techniques for data collection.
  • Catalysed local and national support for these marine reptiles through turtle festivals, education and awareness campaigns.  

Specific sections of the community are targeted for involvement: particularly ex-poacher (via incentive schemes), women (mostly wives of fishermen and former poachers).  

FFI also provides economic incentives to local community members for their support in collecting turtle eggs and observing adult female turtles. This scheme rewards people for notifying project conservation teams about nests being laid, instead of poaching the eggs, and is proving highly-effective in cultivating strong community support for conservation efforts and in reducing residual poaching pressure. Incentives are paid once the eggs are protected in the hatchery (per number of eggs safely translocated); a second payment is made for hatchlings released to sea, to ensure nests are not damaged before brought to the attention of patrol teams. Incentives are paid as credits at a local kiosk or general store, to keep the benefits within the local economy.

Over the last decade, a series of wider public education campaigns are gradually changing public perceptions about eating turtle eggs. 

FFI is also working to reduce turtle bycatch by working with artesanal fishers near priority nesting areas to promote sustainable fishing practices and increase knowledge of fisheries legislation.  Work includs a 3-year initiative to eliminate destructive fishing practices and protect marine habitat within an 80 km marine corridor along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.

FFI engages local community members in project implementation and development, through direct employment, engagement in discrete project activities, sharing of project results through end-of-season workshops, and through participatory fora, such as the Chacocente Management Committee and the Hawksbill Committee in Estero Padre Ramos, through which community members have an opportunity to influence decision-making around natural resource management at these sites. 

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts
Performance-based payments/incentives for patrolling or guarding
Non-monetary, in-kind incentives for community intelligence
Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Other
Further detail

The initiative employs members of the local community as patrol teams for nightly patrols (foot/boat) and hatchery managers.  The patrol teams monitor and protect marine turtles and their nests along a total of 31km priority nesting beach (exclusively men, but women can participate) → currently 35 people employed seasonally, across 4 sites.  Teams are equipped and trained in line with internationally agreed monitoring protocols (including data collection standards) and hatchery management protocols (including egg handling, use of field equipment).

Provide equipment to all patrol teams: PIT and Inconel tags and scanners, thermometers, red-light head torches, disposable gloves, GPS units, forms for logging data, field-site first aid kits, cell phones, protective equipment.

FFI provides economic incentives to local community members (i.e. not those already employed as patrol team members) for their support in collecting turtle eggs and observing adult female turtles. Incentives are paid once the eggs are protected in the hatchery (per number of eggs safely translocated); a second payment is made for hatchlings released to sea, to ensure nests are not damaged before brought to the attention of patrol teams. Incentives are paid as credits at a local kiosk or general store, to keep the benefits within the local economy. This approach, alongside effective collaboration with local people, is helping to secure a turnaround from 100% of nests being poached to >90% of nests protected.  

In addition to financial performance-based incentives, two internet platforms exist for reporting / gathering intelligence on incidences of poaching (www.tortugasnicas.org, managed by FFI, and www.savingpacificleatherbacks.org).  A national WhatsApp group also facilitates communications and information sharing between local patrol team members who have mobile phones and other turtle conservationists working in Nicaragua (27 members in 2018).  

National awareness campaigns led by FFI since 2007 have increased awareness amongst Nicaraguans (to ~80% of the population) that the consumption of marine turtle products is illegal and the need for their conservation.  However, our research has shown that this increased awareness isn't translating into changes in behaviour (poaching or consumption, despite strong sanctions if prosecutions are brought). 

Next phase aims to cultivate measurable behavior change and make the consumption of turtle eggs and products increasingly socially unacceptable in Nicaragua.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Tourism
Subsistence resource access/use
Other
Further detail

FFI supports the development of economically viable, ‘turtle-friendly’ livelihoods strategies, including initiatives to enable community groups to improve or expand economic activities related to coastal tourism.  

For example:  

  • Local tourism guides: by building their capacity to provide and host tours, local community members have been trained and certified (by MARENA and the EPR management committee) as environmental tourist guides. 
     
  • Beach patrollers: helping them gain additional skills (e.g. environmental interpretation so they can guide specialist bird watchers) so that they can improve their off-season livelihood opportunities.  
     
  • Service providers for volunteer tourism initiative at EPR:  FFI has supported the establishment of a volunteer tourism initiative, as a platform for long-term financial sustainability of hawksbill conservation incentive payments at EPR.  This nascent initiative is now being led by a dedicated social and environmental enterprise, SOS Nicaragua, supported by FFI.  This initiative seeks to maximize local buy-in and long-term community (as well as conservation) benefits. 
     
  • Local fishers: who provide water transportation for visitors to the voluntourism initiative at EPR and for in-water monitoring activities.

NB.  All initiatives related to tourism have been affected by the civil unrest which broke out in Nicaragua in April 2018 and is ongoing.  This situation has severely reduced tourism in Nicaragua.  

FFI is working to inform and engage artisanal fishers from fleets near Chacocente, EPR and ASE to strengthen their understanding of fisheries legislation - specifically the content of chapter 5 of Law 489 Fisheries and Aquaculture Law, which deals exclusively with artisanal fisheries, and the 12 articles of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing - improve fisheries management and improve compliance with existing legal standards for fishing gear - which can be harmful to turtles. 

In 2018, the project team began working with a specialist in ‘Participatory Market System Development’ to help fishers from EPR to explore preferential market opportunities for sustainably caught fish, through an initial market mapping process.    

FFI's programme directly employs 35 members of local communities (as patrol team members, community coordinators, hatchery managers). FFI's programme provides incentives for support in collecting turtle eggs to bring back to the hatchery (versus poaching), observing adult female turtles, notifying conservation teams about nests being laid → all are paid as credits at a local kiosk or general store to keep the benefits within the community.                                             

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support
Further detail
  • Mentor young professionals, e.g. through student internships related to turtle conservation.  
     
  • Support for wildlife-friendly enterprise initiatives: such as work in EPR to support five community cooperatives in the custodianship of mangroves, sustainable use of mangrove cockles and snapper-rearing facility.
     
  • Supporting the development of the social enterprise SOS Nicaragua, which creates local employment opportunities (boatmen, cook, etc).
     
  • Providing alternative livelihood opportunities for patrollers who have a very seasonal job (with turtle hatching): so off-season support for them to have consistent income, e.g. as bird-watcher guides or engaging in sustainable fish farming etc.
     
  • Women weavers:  through the ‘Weaving for Nature’ initiative, women collect and clean discarded plastic bags, cut them to make long threads, then weave them into attractive bags for sale.  Income from weaving offers an important incentive for turtle conservation and is proving successful for three groups of women weavers, who are mainly from households of fishers and/or former poachers. 

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Further detail

The project is generating pride in and commitment to turtle conservation among a range of stakeholders, through community-based protection strategies, the facilitation of community participation in natural resource governance, the use of incentives for protection over poaching, environmental education and awareness raising activities, and the promotion of sustainable livelihood options related to turtle conservation.  Participation in and support for turtle-themed activities and events among coastal community members is high, with many activities now being led by partners and stakeholders. 

In particular:  

  • Turtle Festivals:  Popular annual Hawksbill Festival at Padre Ramos has become highly anticipated by residents (in 2017 the festival was attended by ~500 people) and is generating and deepening local pride in ‘their’ turtles.  FFI also supports the municipal authorities of Santa Teresa in Carazo near Veracruz and the municipal authorities of Villa El Carmen near Salamina to organise two annual Marine Turtle Festivals. The Festivals continue to grow in popularity and scope; festival activities include a parade, turtle-themed contests (including cake baking), musical performances, face painting, sea turtle information and a food fair.  
     
  • Hawksbill Cup is a friendly competition between hawksbill conservation teams at Estero Padre Ramos and the ‘sister’ hawksbill conservation project in Bahia de Jiquilisco, El Salvador (managed by ICAPO). Each team can score conservation ‘goals’ by protecting nests and releasing hatchlings. The Hawksbill Cup slogan of “Somos equipo!,” or ‘We are one team!’, makes it clear that no matter which team wins the annual competition, all form one team in the fight to recover hawksbills in the eastern Pacific. The initiative has been highly successful in increasing coordination between the two sites - by increasing recognition of conservation efforts at ‘sister’ sites and through annual exchange visits between the patrol teams - and building local enthusiasm for turtle conservation.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail
  • Provide environmental education activities in coastal communities schools: designed and implemented by FFI in coordination with the Ministry of Education (MINED) and of Environment (MARENA).  "Day of the Turtle" events include talks, game, visual arts, theatre, visits to project hatcheries to witness turtle conservation in action and release of hatchlings.  We aim to reach 10 schools and 1,200 children each year.
     
  • Events to celebrate World TurtleDay: festivals with dance, activities for children → engaged over 130 children.
     
  • Beach clean up events: as part of a national campaign led by the Ministry of the Environment ("YoAmoALasTortugasMarinas") including local participants.
     
  • Awareness raising campaigns: First launched in 2007.  Based on slogans “Yo no como huevos de tortuga” (I don’t eat turtle eggs) and “Yo no uso carey” (I don’t use turtle shell) to raise awareness among the citizens of the country about the problems caused by the extraction of the sea turtle eggs from the beaches and the killing of turtles just for their shells.
     
  • Plans being developed to increase the scope and reach of campaign activities, in order to effect greater changes in consumptive behaviour.  

Has the initiative made a difference?

The protection of nests and production of hatchlings continue to be the most important strategies that can be undertaken to recover leatherback and hawksbill turtle populations in the Eastern Pacific.  FFI's program focusses on the most important beaches for hawksbills and leatherbacks on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua - including two of the three most important beaches for hawksbills in the entire Eastern Pacific that together host more than 50% of all hawksbill nesting in this region.  

  • Leatherback - over the past 16 years work to protect leatherbacks, FFI and our partners have protected 518 nests (>90% of those recorded) and released 8,324 hatchlings, increasing hatchling recruitment for first time in decades. The current low numbers of leatherback nests recorded show significant annual variability, making it difficult to interpret overall trends in terms of a continuing decline or a recovering population over the last 16 years. However, there may be some cautious indicators of recovery, such as the continued recruitment of new nesting females at both VA and SCG.
  • Hawksbill  - over the last 9 years of work to protect hawksbills, FFI and our partners have protected 1,993 nests, released 164,046 hatchlings (with average overall emergence success at 63%), and reduced nest poaching rates from 100% to <6%. 
  • Olive ridley it is more complicated to calculate, because of difficultly estimating nests and fluctuations in poaching pressure. 

While marine turtles are long lived creatures and any change in population status is unlikely to be measurable for decades to come, the long-term data that we compile is allowing us to monitor the population.  We are starting to be able to identify some trends, although these should be interpreted with caution.  Nevertheless, thanks to all those involved in FFI’s marine turtle conservation program – project staff, partners, local stakeholders and donors - the majority (98%) of Nicaragua’s nesting leatherback and hawksbill turtles and their nests are now protected, in places where otherwise 100% of these eggs would be poached.  

Marine turtles are now an increasingly important emblem for the natural environment in Nicaragua and these approaches have contributed to more positive attitudes towards marine turtle conservation amongst those living closest to them. Sea turtles are beginning to become a living asset rather than just a piece of jewellery or plate of eggs.   

Nevertheless, the illegal harvesting of eggs is estimated to remain near 100% at sites where conservation activities are not carried out. A culture of consuming turtle eggs persists among coastal communities and urban consumers, while demand for turtle shell products remains considerable, driven often unwittingly by national and international tourists - despite a national ban on consumption of turtle products since 2006.

(More detailed indicators available upon request.)            

What works and why

The successes of this initiative can be attributed to an number of factors:

  • When starting to work in new sites always start small and then build up: FFI's long-term presence and commitment, alongside the fact that initiative has grown organically and slowly over time, enabled FFI to build trust and relations with local communities. 
  • Specific and tangible goals: 
    • Improved marine turtle nesting and hatching success, by maintaining high levels of nest protection at the most important nesting sites for the different species. 
    • Reduced consumer demand for marine turtle products in Nicaragua, by making the consumption and trade in eggs and use of hawksbill shell socially unacceptable. 
    • Reduced bycatch of marine turtles in key foraging grounds, through the promotion of sustainable fishing practices along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua and in the Gulf of Fonseca. 
    • Strengthened social, financial and ecological sustainability of marine turtle conservation actions at key nesting sites in Nicaragua, contributing to the long-term success of recovery efforts.
  • The initiative took into account "human needs” - including the importance of participatory governance, alongside sustainable livelihoods.  
  • Working with local partners when possible.  We actively network and share information with partners and stakeholders. We are open to collaboration and avoid territorialism.  Importance of building regional and national networks, and sharing information coming out of the project - e.g. significant advances have been made in bringing together conservationists and scientists working on leatherback conservation thoughout the Eastern Pacific seaboard of the Americas, to agree protocols for data collection and data sharing (on nesting beach and bycatch parameters), to enhance communications and collaborations for Eastern Pacific leatherback conservation, and to inform priority actions.
  • The project has a highly committed, qualified and trained team - made up of technical biologists and community patrol teams, led by a talented programme manager, and supported by regional and cross-cutting staff in the UK.    

Factors for success

Long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Further detail

Programme of work to address illegal trade in turtle products (eggs and shell) in Nicaragua is embedded within FFI's wider programme of work to conserve Critically Endangered marine turtle populations in the Eastern Pacific of Nicaragua.  FFI has been successful in securing long term donor support for this work, although it requires significant investment in fundraising / donor relations to maintain this funding flow.    

Regional and national networks (Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative - ICAPO / Eastern Pacific Leatherback Network - Laud OPO / Nicaraguan National Network for Marine Turtle Conservation) collaborating in support of initiatives to address illegal trade in Nicaragua.

The shared vision is the easier bit, but then in terms of getting people on board it can be more difficult due to particular individuals or particular contexts (political, funding, government policies...) at a given time and impedes success.

FFI has been working to conserve marine turtles in Nicaragua since 2002.  Working in partnership with local stakeholders is central to our way of working. 

Tangible benefits for local communities from sustainable livelihoods linked to live turtles - e.g. from direct employment (as patrol team members), community-based tourism initiatives (homestays, weaving for nature, tourism guides, boat hire, provision of other services such as cooks to voluntourism initiative in EPR) - being seen in various sites.  

Since 2010, the incentive scheme has been a key contributor in significantly reduced poaching rates at Padre Ramos and offers comparatively high value for money by mitigating poaching, securing community buy-in to project aims, and in achieving long-term conservation outcomes

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of supportive national policy/legislation on sustainable use of natural resources

Further detail

Legislation protecting turtles in Nicaragua is strong, but implementation (and support for implementation) of those policies is weak. 

Nicaragua passed a national ban on trade in marine turtle products in 2005, which represents the strongest national legal framework protecting marine turtles in Central America. The ban is important: it avoids any problems of laundering illegal eggs if the trade was legal, and if eggs are for sale, they are illegal. 

However, enforcement of this law and international treaties to prevent illegal exploitation and trade is weak.

Limited capacity within national insitutions, compounded by current civil unrest in Nicaragua. 

Benefits for local communities currently being measured.  

For example, artesanal fishing grounds / rights are not well defined or maintained.   

Organisers, donors and partners

Partners:
Nicaraguan Ministry of Environment & Natural Resources (MARENA) 
Nicaraguan Ministry of Education (MINED)  
Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO) 
Eastern Pacific Leatherback Network (LAUD OPO) 
National Sea Turtle Conservation Network in Nicaragua
Fundacion LIDER - National NGO
SOS Nicaragua - social enterprise 
Hermanamiento Wisconsin - NGO 
 
Donors: 
US Fish & Wildlife Service Marine Turtle Conservation Fund 
National Fish & Wildlife Foundation 
DEFRA Darwin Initiative 
FFI Species Fund 
The Ocean Foundation 
Pacsafe Turtle Fund 
plus additional donations from private donors, small trusts and family foundations.  
                                                                                                                                        

For further information contact Alison Gunn (alison.gunn@fauna-flora.org).