A lot has been said and done for the large sea turtles that visit Costa Rica’s beaches just to lay their eggs and go off to sea again. But the smaller land and freshwater turtles receive little attention, even though they face tremendous obstacles to survival. At Tortufauna, a private nonprofit research and educational farm in La Garita de Alajuela, northwest of San José, former biology teacher Vilma Castillo is calling attention to their needs.
“I became fascinated with turtles when I was in high school,” says Castillo, who used to teach high school biology and served as an environmental studies consultant for the Education Ministry. “The day I resigned from teaching is the day I started Tortufauna.”
That was in 2003. Today, the center is home to six of the seven species of land and aquatic turtles that exist in Costa Rica, plus a clinic where turtle diseases are studied and cured and where people can bring pet turtles that need help. The center’s aim is to promote the protection and reproduction of the turtles, which face extinction if they do not get help, Castillo says.
“They are small and look like rocks, and they are slow. Farmers who find them in their fields pick them up and throw them because they eat crops,” Castillo explains. “But fires are another big danger. Turtles cannot run to escape like other animals. They also get killed crossing roads and are poisoned by chemical sprays used on crops.”
It takes land turtles five years to reach maturity and lay eggs, which can be dug up by dogs, raccoons and other predators. When the babies do emerge from the nests, they are small and defenseless, and their parents don’t wait around to help them.
At Tortufauna, land turtles roam free and their nests are safe from scavengers.
“But reproduction is difficult. This is not their natural soil and few babies have survived,” Castillo says, explaining that reproduction is one of the center’s major concerns.
Tortufauna’s aquatic turtles have tanks to swim in, but also dry land for sunning. One tank holds snapping turtles or alligator turtles, tortugas lagarto, which look mean but are quite shy with people, says Esteban Rojas, a guide at the center. Another species, the box turtle or hinged turtle, has spurs that can clamp onto a finger as easily as teeth do. Two other species of aquatic turtles at the center are red-cheeked and yellow-cheeked turtles.
The-red cheeked types sold in pet stores were originally imported from the United States. Rojas says they are an “invasive species” that have become prevalent here.
“People buy them as pets and then change their minds,” he says. “These turtles can live up to 100 years, and as they grow they need a bigger tank, and they need sun, or their shells deteriorate.
“They also need an adequate diet. Owners get tired of pleasing their turtles and abandon them. In nature they are more aggressive and eat and reproduce more than the yellow-cheeked native species.”
Still in the learning phase, Tortufauna is linked to Le Village des Tortues in France, one of the few places in the world dedicated to the study and protection of land and freshwater turtles, and which has plans to link up turtle study centers on an international level. Castillo and Rojas visited the French center to study its work.
Tortufauna’s research and teaching efforts extend to the use of organic material for gardening.
“Instead of burning old leaves in which turtles and other animals hide to keep comfortable, we make compost,” Castillo points out.
The compost houses worms, which in turn help reduce the organic material and are a nutritious turtle food. A nursery is stocked with plants grown and kept in compost in hanging cut-away plastic bottles. Some of these plants make good turtle food. At Tortufauna, visitors can learn which plants, fruits and vegetables provide a good diet for turtles. Thus, helping the turtle population is helping the environment, and vice versa.
In addition to offering the chance to see the variety of land and freshwater turtles that inhabit Costa Rica, Tortufauna gives demonstrations and courses in environment management and hydroponic gardening. An “environmentally constructed” conference center serves as a classroom. Castillo welcomes groups and individual visitors, but appointments should be made in advance. She also will visit schools or learning centers to teach about turtles and the environment.
From San José, take the Inter-American Highway west to La Garita de Alajuela. Exit the highway at Manolo’s, turn left and go three kilometers to the La Garita soccer plaza. At the blue wall, turn left toward Turrúcares and go about 800 meters. Look for the vivero sign on the right with a wooden marker for Tortufauna. Buses from Alajuela to Turrúcares go to the center; ask the driver for the parada at Tortufauna. Admission to the center costs ₡1,500 ($3) for adults and ₡700 ($1.40) for children. For information, visit www.tortufauna.com, or call 2489-6503 or 8390-3985 for an appointment.