Sea turtles around the world are threatened with extinction. In Central America, sea turtle eggs are taken from beaches and sold on the black market and later eaten as a delicacy. Turtle egg poachers usually come from rural coastal communities. Despite their involvement in the illegal wildlife trade, they represent our best hope for a solution.
La Flor Wildlife Refuge is a protected area located in southwestern Nicaragua. It was established to safeguard one of the region’s most important arribada (mass nesting) beaches for the olive ridley sea turtle.
Although the olive ridley is the primary species nesting at La Flor, critically endangered hawksbill, leatherback, and Pacific green turtles nests solitarily along the isolated southern beaches at La Flor.
The Paso Pacífico turtle conservation program is located at two remote beaches within La Flor Wildlife Refuge, located between Punta La Flor and Punta Arranca Barba, near the Ostional community.
The program is carried out in partnership with community members from La Tortuga and Ostional, which are settlements of the San Juan del Sur Municipality in the Rivas Province of Nicaragua.
The poaching and wildlife trade problem
Species affected Green Sea Turtle Chelonia mydas , Hawksbill Eretmochelys imbricate , Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea , Olive Ridley Turtle Lepidochelys olivaceaProducts in trade
Turtle eggs sold to restaurants as they are considered a culinary delicacy.
Overview of the problem
Four different species of marine turtles nest along Pacific beaches of southern Nicaragua: the olive ridley, hawksbill, leatherback, and Pacific green. Despite its global importance as a locale for sea turtle reproduction, sea turtle nest poaching is widespread. At unprotected beaches, poachers destroy more than 90% of sea turtle nests to sell the eggs into the illegal wildlife trade.
Local people and fishermen track the beaches at night for nesting turtles, and upon finding a nest, they immediately harvest all the eggs. Although there is variation among species, one sea turtle nest may provide up to ten dozen turtle eggs.
Turtle eggs removed from local beaches are not primarily consumed within the local community, but are sold to middlemen who take the eggs to urban centers where they are sold at public markets and eaten as a delicacy in restaurants and bars throughout Nicaragua.
The sea turtle egg trade in Nicaragua is influenced by the pervasiveness of rural poverty and the culture of turtle eggs as food. 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-Columbian settlements in coastal areas.
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.
This wildlife crime is devastating for endangered sea turtles. Poachers currently have the upper hand on circumventing local authorities, and little is known about the routes they use to smuggle endangered species.
The anti-IWT initiative
The long-term goal of the Paso Pacífico sea turtle conservation program is to protect endangered sea turtles in partnership with local communities as Paso Pacífico recognised that community members want to be involved in the protection of sea turtles and see the potential for community-based ecotourism centered on these species.
The specific objectives are to (1) reduce conflict between communities and natural resource managers near La Flor Wildlife Refuge, (2) decrease poaching and increase protection for solitary nesting sea turtles, and (3) promote alternative sources of income that are tied to conservation for the benefit of local people.
1. Reduce conflict between communities and natural resource managers
1.1 Conflict mediation
Local people are prohibited by govt. officials from entering La Flor Wildlife Refuge, and thus are denied access to harvest eggs on the main arribada beach. This created resentment within the community because local people believe that the rangers and army are finding ways to enrich themselves—for example, by collecting entrance fees at the park. Local people believed that they were excluded from the benefits of tourism. Also, a considerable amount of tension was apparent because soldiers from the Nicaraguan army who support government rangers are armed with guns. In the past, the guns have been fired by the army against poachers from local communities, and there have been serious injuries.
Paso Pacífico hired an expert in conflict mediation who held interviews and one-on-one meetings with community leaders and governmental agencies. These meetings were followed by a series of community workshops, resulting in an agreed-upon framework for cooperating in the name of conservation and sustainable tourism development. Paso Pacífico also held activities throughout the year to increase trust and cooperation among stakeholders. These efforts included meetings with tourism investors and developers, a workshop with developers promoting turtle-friendly lighting, a field trip with local schoolchildren to La Flor Wildlife Refuge to view nesting sea turtles, and a sea turtle educational exhibit at a local school. These activities were designed to raise community awareness regarding the importance of sea turtles while also opening the dialogue between the different stakeholders who have been at conflict.
2. Decrease poaching and increase protection for solitary nesting sea turtles
2.1 Community ranger programme
A meeting was held with community members where goals for sea turtle conservation and our commitment to seeing the local communities directly benefit from ecotourism were presented.
A community ranger program - that is staffed by both men and women - has been established. They are given a competitive wage with benefits to work as full-time rangers to protect the beach. For some men, this was the first time they had had formal employment and four of them were formerly turtle egg poachers.
Their duties include patrolling beaches during the day and night, and collecting scientific data (training has been provided for this purpose). They have been provided with equipment and have been trained to use non-confrontational approaches to ask that egg poachers cease poaching on the beaches.
Although some of them used to be poachers, they now use their expertise to train hotel partners in methods of sea turtle protection and turtle nursery management. Through their leadership, six additional beaches are protected by hotel partners.
3. Develop alternative sources of income
3.1 Performance-based incentives for conservation (also 2 above)
As economic need appears to be driving much of the turtle egg poaching, any attempt to reduce poaching must also include an effort to address the this.
This initiative allows for incentive payments, benefiting both local people and the general community. First, individuals receive a nominal payment upon committing to protect a 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 per hatchling. The payment varies by species, with the more endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles returning the highest amounts.
The community fund accumulates throughout the year, and at the end of the year, the community’s leadership decides how to use the money. The performance-based payments program is also providing incentives to the Paso Pacífico rangers by awarding 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 the ranger who has protected the most nests during the year. Awards are given to the rangers in a public forum in front of the entire community.
A community committee oversees the transparency of this.
3.2 Community-based tourism
Members of the local community have received training in eco-tourism related fields, and some are now tourist guides.
The Paso Pacífico program attempts to play the role of facilitator by which community members may step up and eventually lead the effort to protect their resources.
Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour
Paso Pacífico recruited community leaders and hotel partners from seven beaches to participate in sea turtle monitoring as well as leadership training.
Individuals receive a nominal payment upon committing to protect a nest. Then, when turtle eggs have successfully hatched the protector and community receive an additional payment. More endangered species receive greater payments.
The performance-based payments program is also providing incentives to the community rangers by awarding 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 the ranger who has protected the most nests during the year. Awards are given to the rangers in a public forum in front of the entire community.
Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship
Some members of the community have been provided training in ecotourism-related activities and some now act as tourist guides.
Has the initiative made a difference?
In the past 10 years, Paso Pacífico’s rangers have protected more than 50,000 turtle eggs. These include critically endangered hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles: without the protective actions of community rangers, it is certain that nests at these beaches would be poached.. Through this program, we also provide round-the-clock protection to Nicaragua’s most important nesting beach for the green sea turtle.
Rangers express great satisfaction in applying their knowledge about nesting behavior to now protect these animals rather than harm them and see that by participating in conservation they can provide a steady income for their families and can assume positions of leadership within their communities.
What works and why
Community participation is at the core of Paso Pacífico’s values as an organization. In guiding our sea turtle conservation program, we rely on three important principles to ensure that our programs have a measurable and positive impact: (1) program evaluation and adaptive management, (2) assignment of leadership roles to local community members, and (3) program transparency for local communities.
Paso Pacífico has adopted transparency as one of our core operating principles and values. This has been critical for maintaining the high level of confidence that local people have in our efforts to protect sea turtles.
In addition, the strategy of hiring former poachers has been particularly important in protecting turtles because those who at one time worked as poachers are truly experts on sea turtles and their nesting behavior.
Factors for success
Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities
Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)
Transparent and accountable distribution of benefits to local communities
Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)
Organisers, donors and partners
The multitude of donors and partners supporting this project can be found here: http://pasopacifico.org/donors-and-partners/
For further information contact (firstname.lastname@example.org).