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The Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) has been working at several locations in the Bocas del Toro Province of Panama since 2003 to monitor and protect endangered sea turtle nesting populations. The region sees globally important levels of nesting by critically endangered hawksbill turtles and leatherback turtles. However, intense hunting pressure dating back over a hundred years nearly wiped out these nesting colonies.
STC’s work in the region, conducted in partnership with a local indigenous community, has reversed the decline and they have seen an increase in nesting by both species. At the same time, communities in the region are gradually moving away from unsustainable harvesting of turtles and replacing it with sustainable ecotourism.
Nesting activity is concentrated at several relatively undeveloped beaches spread around the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. Over the last 18 years, STC gradually established conservation programs at each of the known major nesting sites in the province.
In early 2019, STC biologists began hearing rumours of a hidden away beach on the outskirts of the archipelago where both leatherbacks and hawksbills are nesting, but where they face ongoing threats from illegal poaching. To investigate, STC set up weekly nesting surveys at this remote beach, known locally as Bocas del Drago, and our studies confirmed the stories. Not only does Bocas del Drago host previously unknown nesting by these two endangered species, the nearshore reef off the beach is populated with young hawksbills that are also being targeted by illegal fishing.
Through this new project, STC will employ a successful strategy that has worked at other beaches in the region. First, we will hire and train members of the local community to implement STC’s nest monitoring protocol to give us reliable information about the status of nesting and the level of take by poachers. STC’s staff biologists also will conduct in-water monitoring of the juvenile hawksbill population that inhabits the nearshore reef in order to get baseline information about the size of the population and also to begin documenting impacts from illegal turtle hunting on the reef.
At the same time, the STC will work with the local community to show everyone how turtles can be more valuable alive than dead by developing sustainable ecotourism based on the nesting turtles. Bocas del Drago is somewhat remote, but it can be reached via car from the Caribbean tourist town of Bocas, which opens the possibility of taking tourists to Bocas del Drago to observe turtles nesting at night for a fee.
This venture can employ numerous local community members and generate sustainable income for the community that is greater and more sustainable than the money generated by killing turtles for their eggs, meat and shells. STC has considerable experience setting up such programs in Costa Rica and at other beaches in Panama, so they are confident this project will be successful as well.
The total budget for this project is $44,500. The STC is seeking $20,000 through The Footprints Network to help contribute to the remaining costs of the project. See itemized budget below:
The most significant partners in this project will be numerous members of the local community, some of whom are indigenous Ngobe-Bugle Indians, who will be hired and trained by STC to conduct nest monitoring and protection activities.
For 60 years, STC has conducted sea turtle research and protection on the Caribbean coast of Central America. This project fits with the organization’s long-term strategies and goals for sea turtle recovery. Sea turtles are very vulnerable to illegal poaching in the region – an activity often conducted out of necessity to generate income in areas where there are few prospects for employment.
By initiating ecotourism based on taking tourists to see nesting turtles, communities can be shown that turtles are worth more alive than dead – and that the income will be sustainable. STC has initiated exactly this sort of strategy at places like Tortuguero, Costa Rica, a community that hosts the largest nesting population of green turtles in the world.
Once hunted nearly to extinction, the population is now very robust and healthy because the community has turned to ecotourism rather than turtle hunting as a source of income. The STC will achieve the same results at Bocas del Drago, Panama.