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Amazon Turtles Recovering, Thanks to Local Volunteers

Forty years of community engagement has brought the freshwater turtles of Brazil back from the brink—but lack of funding may imperil conservation.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next
Camila_ferrara_tartaruga P expansa hatchling.jpg

Four decades of community-based conservation in Brazil have increased the number of giant South American turtle hatchlings nine-fold along 1,500 kilometers of the Juruá River, a major tributary of the Amazon. Photo Credit: Camila Ferrara, Wildlife Conservation Society

Every year, as the late July waters ebb from the banks of the Brazilian Amazon, a bale of female giant South American turtles creeps shyly from the river’s edge. Here, they will burrow into the soft, speckled sand, excavating the pits in which they’ll lay their eggs. If the young are lucky, they’ll hatch just before the rains return to flood the river anew and amble toward the water, following the maternal calls that beckon them home.

But along portions of the Amazon’s Juruá River, most of these little turtles never make it out of their shells. Nesting areas on unprotected beaches remain vulnerable to raids by poachers, further imperiling a species already threatened by years of habitat destruction.

In recent years, however, turtle populations have experienced a miraculous uptick, according to a new report in the journal Nature Sustainability. The turtles’ recovery appears to have also buoyed beach biodiversity in these riverside habitats—and it’s all thanks to four decades of conservation efforts made by local communities.

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“Community engagement is an essential ingredient in wildlife and natural conservation,” says Kristen Conway-Gómez, a geographer and conservationist at California State
Polytechnic University, Pomona, who did not participate in the research. “We can’t achieve [the same amount of] conservation without including local stakeholders.”

Freshwater turtles of the Brazilian Amazon have long been sustainably harvested by indigenous peoples and remain a crucial aspect of traditional cultures. But the arrival of European settlers marked a turning point for these river populations, and foreign commercialization of the turtle trade quickly began to take its toll on local wildlife. During the Amazon rubber boom that began in the late 19th century, European colonists ravaged riverside habitats for natural resources, decimating fragile populations of turtles that once thrived in the waters. New legislation enacted by the Brazilian government, beginning in 1967, did little to curb poaching efforts. By the 1980s, P. expansa had found itself on the endangered species list.

“These river systems in the Amazon today are a pale shadow of what they were 150 years ago,” explains study author Carlos Peres, a conservation ecologist at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. “P. expansa’s original habitat range has been contracted to perhaps 2 percent of what it used to be.”

Priscila_Miorando P expansa hatchling.JPG

Due to centuries of over-exploitation, populations of the giant South American turtle (Podocnemis expansa) dwindled to concerning levels, particularly after the Amazon rubber boom in the late 19th century. Photo Credit: Priscila Miorando, Federal University of Western Pará

But in the middle of the chaos, a small movement began to take root. In the mid-1900s, concerned Brazilian locals self-organized, recruiting volunteers to stake out turtle nesting beaches, or tabuleiros, to ward off poachers during breeding season. Today, several tabuleiros are protected by round-the-clock local surveillance for up to six months each year.

This self-sustaining system has been in place for decades—but it wasn’t until recently that a team of researchers led by Peres and João Campos-Silva of the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil finally quantified their impact on turtle viability.

To track the wellbeing of Amazon turtle populations, the team collected 40 years of nesting data between 1977 and 2016—and it quickly became clear just how astoundingly successful the locals’ efforts had been. Four decades of community-based conservation had increased the number of P. expansa nests 11-fold along the Juruá River; the number of hatchlings had also increased nine-fold, averaging out to more than 70,000 additional hatchlings released on beaches each year.

“This is a very important study,” says Joanna Burger, an ecologist and conservationist at Rutgers University who did not participate in the research. “There are so few long-term studies in conservation… so it’s hard to show that these work.”

When the team compared wildlife inhabiting protected and unprotected beaches along a 1,500-kilometer (over 900-mile) stretch of the Juruá, they found that the locals’ vigilance had effectively deterred poachers from not only P. expansa nests, but also the burrows of their close relatives—yellow-spotted river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) and six-tubercled river turtles (Podocnemis sextuberculata). While a staggering 99 percent of the 200 nests on unguarded beaches suffered poaching raids, only 2 percent of the over 2,000 nests on monitored beaches had been harvested. When the researchers took all local factors into account, they found that the number of years a beach had been protected was the most important contribution to the turtles’ reproductive success.

Camila_ferrara_Iaça P sextuberculata hatchling.jpg

Several freshwater turtle species, including the giant South American turtle (Podocnemis expansa), the yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis), and the six-tubercled river turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata), have been affected by human over-exploitation, but community-based efforts have brought populations back from the brink. Photo Credit: Camila Ferrara, Wildlife Conservation Society

And the turtles weren’t the only beneficiaries of local generosity. The researchers were surprised to find that many diverse species, including other reptiles, birds, fish, and insects, were also thriving on protected beaches and in the waters they bordered—a striking contrast with the “deafening silence” of the unprotected beaches nearby, Peres explains. In this way, Campos-Silva says, the turtles were acting as a bit of an umbrella species, delivering collateral benefits to their neighbors.

“The greatest contribution of this paper is all these positive benefits to [other] species,” explains Jennifer Howeth, a conservation ecologist at the University of Alabama who did not contribute to the research. “From a conservation perspective, you’re getting a really good bang for your buck.”

To round out their analysis of the program, the researchers interviewed beach guards who had participated in the efforts over the years. These results, unfortunately, were more sobering. While locals were enthusiastic about the recovery of biodiversity in the area, they expressed concerns about the dearth of monetary support and a lack of appreciation from government agencies for work that was harrowing, time-consuming, and often dangerous due to threats from particularly recalcitrant poachers.

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The sole compensation the guards receive is a monthly food hamper worth about $110, paid only during turtle breeding season. In spite of this, some of the most stalwart participants had been on the job for over 35 years, citing a moral obligation to continue the work they’d inherited from their parents and grandparents. “The guards are doing it out of love,” Campos-Silva says. “But we need a better solution for economic sustainability.”

About 390 protected tabuleiros exist throughout the Brazilian Amazon. According to the researchers’ estimates, maintaining surveillance across all locales would incur an annual cost of about $833,000, a sum that will require a consistent, independent stream of financial support.

In the meantime, however, Campos-Silva, Peres, and their colleagues hope that these early successes can inspire other conservation efforts worldwide—especially those lacking in funding or dedicated staff.

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Turtle conservation along the Juruá River has been almost entirely spearheaded by local volunteers in a labor of love. Guards monitor turtle breeding grounds 24/7 during the dry season for only a monthly food stipend, and some of the most devout individuals have been keeping watch for nearly four decades. Photo Credit: Joseph Hawes, Anglia Ruskin University

But Conway-Gómez cautions that, while the statistics from the Juruá region’s conservation efforts are “striking,” it’s unclear how much—or if—they will be replicated in other communities around the world, where cultural resources and local enthusiasm may be less abundant. Future work will require tailoring each action plan to individual wildlife species and human communities and, as Howeth points out, identifying consistent sources of funding, management, and oversight.

Once empowered with the right resources, local investment can be one of most critical aspects of conservation. A handful of passionate individuals might be all it takes to bring a species back from the brink.

“In some ways, communities have better ways to do this work than outside biologists and conservationists,” Conway-Gómez adds. “It’s important to give them a place at the table.”