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Over 60 years ago, Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) partnered with the community of Tortuguero, Costa Rica, to introduce eco-tourism as an alternative to the “consumptive use” of sea turtles for meat, eggs and shell. It was a strategy that saved this important population from near-extinction.
Tortuguero hosts the second largest green turtle rookery in the world, regularly seeing more than 100,000 nests per year. STC’s conservation work in Tortuguero continues to this day, as the population faces a concerning new challenge—a decline in green turtle nesting due to uncertain causes.
For decades it has been known that up to 10,000 adult green turtles (most originating from Tortuguero) are killed annually on the coast of Nicaragua. The level of take occurring in Nicaragua’s legal turtle hunt is large, but it also has been consistent for decades. Even with the Nicaraguan harvest, Tortuguero’s green turtle population had been growing until about a decade ago.
This leads us to believe a combination of new threats, including previously undetected threats at undiscovered turtle foraging grounds, are impacting this population. It is essential that STC continue its conservation work at Tortuguero, while also identifying and eliminating new threats related to climate change, marine pollution, and exploitation at remote foraging sites that have gone undetected until now.
The core of this project is an annual nest monitoring and protection program carried out with the help of locally-hired staff and student Research Assistants from Latin American countires. This time-tested program collaborates with local authorities to deter illegal poaching on the nesting beach, while also supporting a sustianable eco-tourism program that directly benefits the community of Tortuguero. In addition, STC’s Research Assistantship program trains aspiring Latin American biologists in order to expand conservation capacity in the region.
A new research initiative is launching in 2022 to identify undetected threats facing Tortuguero’s turtles. STC will use satellite transmitters to track the migrations of green turtles nesting on the southern end of Tortuguero. STC’s research station is on the north end of the 20-mile beach, and all previously tracked turtles were tagged on this part of the beach. Our hypothesis is that turtles nesting to the south may migrate south, rather than north to Nicaragua, where all the turtles we’ve tracked before have traveled.
If we can identify previously unknown foraging destinations used by Tortuguero’s turtles, we can determine the threats confronting green turtles at these sites and then work to elimiate them in order to stop the unexpected decline of this globally important nesting colony. In addition to reducing marine-based threats, STC will continue addressing anthropogenic threats impacting the productivity of the nesting beach itself, including artificial lighting, predation by domestic dogs, illegal poaching of eggs, and rising nest incubation temperatures.
STC also will address threats to Tortuguero’s turtles through diverse community education and outreach programs, such as weekly presentations at local schools focusing on sea turtle and habitat stewardship. We will also provide opportunities for local high school students to serve as Junior Research Assistants, allowing them to work side-by-side with STC biologists.