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Indigenous communities join forces to protect Charapa river turtles

Current initiative


Amazon Yellow-spotted River Turtle.

Amazon Yellow-spotted River Turtle. ("Iquitos_2015 08 02_1797" by HBarrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 2008, WCS Ecuador started collaborating with nine indigenous communities and the Ministry of the Environment to protect charapa river-turtle populations in Yasuní National Park. Recovery of these culturally important sources of food will enable these communities to decide, in the future, whether or not to set community quotas for the sustainable harvest of turtles. In the meantime, the development of alternative sources of animal protein, such as chicken production, is alleviating the pressure on these turtles.


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Nine indigenous communities located in the northwestern area of the Yasuní National Park are involved in the initiative.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected South American River Turtle Podocnemis expansa , Yellow-spotted River Turtle Podocnemis unifilis

Products in trade

The yellow-spotted river turtle and the South American river turtle are threatened by increasing exploitation and marketing of their eggs for human consumption (subsistence and local/regional trade), and wildlife trafficking of adult animals.

Overview of the problem

The eggs and meat of side-necked turtles continue to be a widespread component in the diet of both rural and urban people in the region and across Amazonia more generally.

In the markets of the Amazon basin of Ecuador, the eggs of the charapas  fetch up to half a dollar each, a significant sum to the impoverished indigenous communities who live here.

The anti-IWT initiative

Charapas have key ecological roles in the Amazonian aquatic ecosystem and has cultural and economic significance for indigenous peoples.

Implemented by WCS Ecuador, and with the collaboration of Ecuador's Ministry of Environment and other agencies, indigenous communities along the banks of the Napo and Tiputini rivers launched an initiative to conserve the charapas turtles by creating environments to encourage egg-laying and to protect newly-hatched turtles.

Actions include monitoring and protection of nesting sites, analyses of movement patterns and population monitoring, and awareness building and education.

Indigenous people manage five artificial beaches where Charapas lay their eggs and ten pools where hatchlings are raised until they are big enough to be released into the wild.

To help offset the short-term loss of turtles as a culturally valued source of food, WCS has been supporting community efforts to develop alternative sources of animal protein that are ecologically sustainable, culturally acceptable, and “private” rather than open access public goods, such as improved backyard chicken production, and native species aquaculture.

To ensure the long term financial sustainability of the program, in March 2016 was established a formal “river turtle adoption program” in two indigenous communities, in partnership with two international tourism operators, as a mechanism for generating future funds in support of turtle conservation.

Inclusion of gender, age and ethnic groups

To ensure the programme’s continuity and the long-term conservation of the turtles, project leaders are involving local school-children in training and environmental education programmes on the management and conservation of the charapas and their habitat.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Subsistence resource access/use
Legal trade

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support

Improving education and awareness

Has the initiative made a difference?

Turtle population recovering: In 2009, an average of 1.51 turtles/km in both rivers was recorded. By 2015, seven years into the program, surveys showed a 340% increase in river turtle sightings along the Napo River and a 260% increase along the Tiputini River.

In the 2017 nesting season, the six participating Kichwa communities collected 4,803 charapa turtle eggs. As of February 2017, 87% of the eggs had hatched (4,174 individuals) and were released back into the wild. This was a 20% increase in hatching success from 2015 and a 45% increase from 2009 the first year of the program. In two communities on the Tiputini River, community members also collected 170 Giant South American river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) eggs (2 nests), 119 of which hatched (a 70% success rate) and were later released.

During the 2015 & 2016 nesting seasons, community members protected the two largest nesting sites along the Napo and Tiputini rivers. As a result, during these two years, not a single river turtle nest was destroyed by poachers.

Livelihoods: Commercial collection of river-turtles and their eggs has been measurably reduced. Local people are now more aware of the importance of river-turtles in maintaining healthy aquatic environments and are making progress in restoring healthy populations of both species of river-turtles. Recovery of turtle populations will enable the indigenous communities that are investing in turtle management to decide, in the future, whether or not to set community quotas for the sustainable harvest of turtles.

Governance: All six Kichwa communities used a participatory approach to develop and implement territorial management plans, which included specific strategies for wildlife (harvest quotas) and habitat (land use zoning) conservation. Nineteen park rangers from Yasuní National Park worked together with WCS to revise and update their approach to river-turtle conservation, implementing night patrols and supporting the community monitoring of human activity in the two largest nesting sites in northern Yasuní. Combined, this collaboration of indigenous communities, civil society, and a government agency have improved governance of vulnerable river-turtle populations in the wild.

Education and Awareness Raising:  Since its beginning, the program has conducted environmental awareness workshops to 797 students from nine indigenous communities; parallel to this, 30 park rangers have been trained in Amazon turtle management and conservation techniques.

River Turtle Adoption Programme:  By the end of 2016, 1000 yellow-spotted river turtles had been symbolically adopted and released through the program.


What works and why

Although law enforcement can be an important tool for biodiversity conservation, without motivation for compliance, punitive governance actions (including enforcement) are unlikely to succeed and can even be counter-productive by generating conflicts with local communities.

This initiative clearly shows how community participation if appropriately implemented, can facilitate effective natural resource management where law enforcement is limited or ineffective, and how local community-based management can be effective for the conservation of 'common pool resources'.

Factors for success

Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Organisers, donors and partners

For further information contact (