SAN JUAN DEL SUR – Though tens of thousands of endangered olive ridley turtles are expected to crawl onto Nicaragua’s Pacific beaches in record numbers this season to lay eggs in spectacular nesting events known as “arribadas,” turtle experts say that other more-endangered species of sea turtles are at increased risk along the Pacific coast.
The population of olive ridley turtles, one of four species of sea turtle that nests on Nicaragua’s 480-kilometer Pacific coastline, appears to be recovering. During the June 2007 – January 2008 nesting season, some 187,000 olive ridleys nested on Nicaragua’s Pacific shoreline, and that number is expected to increase during this year’s nesting season, which ends in January, according to Flora and Fauna International.
But turtle experts say a drop in the recorded sightings of other highly endangered turtle species – the leatherback (known as “Tora” in Spanish), Hawksbill (known as the “Carey” in Spanish) and green (“Torita” in Spanish) – is “alarming.” All three species combined left less than 80 nests on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast last year, according to Flora and Fauna International.
Flora and Fauna director Jose Urteaga told The Nica Times that the outlook for those three highly endangered species is “very, very, very bad” as the new threat of beach development is added to the traditional threat of poachers who steal turtle eggs from the beach to sell them on the black market as an aphrodisiac.
In a country where most of the population is poor, others hunt the slow-moving reptiles for their shells, meat and eggs.
Though there is little historical record of turtle nesting in Nicaragua, a recent Flora and Fauna report notes that beach residents in Veracruz de Acayo once observed as many as 100 leatherback turtles nesting in a single night on that beach alone. Yet last year, only 35 total sightings were reported in all of Nicaragua’s Pacific beaches combined.
Turtle conservation has been an uphill battle in a country where nearly half the residents live in poverty and the black market turtle trade continues to offer opportunities for income, conservationists say.
Nor does it help that lawmakers shrug off the very legislation they made to protect one of the world’s most threatened creatures; last year, local press photographed jolly legislators at a banquet feasting upon a bowl of turtle eggs.
There’s also been some local resistance to a crackdown on turtle egg poaching. An effort to stop poachers last year in the fishing village of Astillero, north of San Juan del Sur, ended in a shootout in which two people were injured and thrown in jail.
While poverty remains the bane of turtle conservation efforts in Nicaragua, a beach development boom driven by the south Pacific’s world-class surfing, sportfishing and pristine beachfront properties, has in some ways brought new opportunities for poor Nicaraguans to make income off turtle conservation, giving birth to a blossoming sea turtle eco-tourism niche.
But the development boom is also bringing new challenges for the reptiles, which are thought to come back to lay eggs on the beaches where they were born.
“Builders are taking out the river sand for their construction projects. We’ve seen a lot of erosion on the beaches with each rain, and we’ve lost many nests,” said Lisa González, director of sea turtle watchdog group Paso Pacifico.
Though a foreign investment boom has created new threats to the nesting spots of sensitive sea turtles (beach erosion, larger boats that may discourage nesting and beachfront lights that disorient some sea turtles) the southern Pacific’s two protected nesting beaches, La Flor and Chacocente, remain largely undeveloped (perhaps due more to property disputes there rather than effective conservation efforts). –
Still, González said, the nearby construction sector’s demand for construction material has contributed to river erosion in the protected areas and has become-a significant threat to those two delicate nesting habitats.
“It’s all this development of the South Pacific. Nicaragua was always the least developed coast around, but that situation has changed a lot in the past 10 years,” González said.
The nesting habitats of the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivácea), which is listed as “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources -(IUCN), have become an international spectacle, attracting tourists to observe stunning arribadas, when thousands of the prehistoric creatures beach and deposit about 100 eggs each in the sand.
Upon hatching, the few surviving baby turtles crawl back to sea in a natural exodus. At La Flor and Chacocente beaches, protected wildlife refuges that are among the seven most important olive ridley nesting beaches in the world, as many as 80,000 turtles will crawl on to the beach during a three-day arribada, which takes place about a half dozen times during the June-January season.
“It’s been a good year for us,” said Carlos Santos, manager of Casa el Oro hotel in San Juan del Sur, which has been offering tours of sea turtle nesting sites for the past five years.
His hotel takes groups as large as 40 tourists at $30 a head to La Flor in hopes of spotting nesting turtles,-which was not a problem after heavy rains in October gave way to massive November arribadas this year.
Though nesting has been good for the olive ridley turtles this year – and for tourism – turtle watchers say other species are vanishing from Nicaraguan beaches.
“They’re not being given the protection that they really need. We have to see how to protect them and seek consciousness of the population,” said Mario Rodríguez, the Rivas delegate of the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry (MARENA).
Rodríguez said he has recorded only eight sightings so far this year of leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriácea), the largest and most endangered turtle found in Nicaragua.
The MARENA delegate suspects recordlow sightings of leatherbacks is due to the sensitive turtle’s migration to the north as Nicaragua’s south Pacific develops and egg poaching persists.
Along with the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate), the leatherback is on the IUCN red list as a critically endangered species, while the Pacific green turtle (Chelonia mydas agassizii)- is considered endangered.
For generations, Nicaraguan fishermen have poached green turtles for their meat and hawksbills for their shells, and while the industry persists in the Pacific – though it pales in comparison to the booming turtle meat and shell trade on Nicaragua’s Caribbean – non-governmental organizations and businesses say they’re having some success educating coastal communities on the natural and economic benefits of turtle conservation.
The Chinandega shrimp company Empresa Semillas Acuaticas’s program to protect three kilometers of prime olive ridley nesting beach is one of a growing number of businesses joining the ranks of turtle conservationists. Meanwhile, non-governmental groups such as Paso Pacifico and Flora and Fauna International have recently received backing from Nicaraguan military and police to defend the five protected turtle nesting areas along the Pacific.
But in unprotected coastal areas, much work remains to be done.
Strolling along the beach with his surfboard near the town of Salinas, just south of Chococente, on a recent afternoon,- U.S. tourist Andrew Loy encountered two fishermen following an olive ridley turtle to its nesting site. Loy lamented the possibility that the two men might steal the turtle’s eggs, but was overwhelmed by the spectacle.
“Whoa,” he said, “that’s pretty sweet. I’ve only seen like tortoises in the zoo, but not a sea turtle that big.”