San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Residents divided on turtle hatchery program

From the print edition

CAÑO NEGRO, Alajuela – After being stopped several times due to environmental concerns, a project in which thousands of turtle eggs are taken from protected land near Caño Negro – a wildlife refuge in northern Costa Rica – and later sold as pets is back in operation this year. But clear battle lines remain, with proponents of the hatchery program highlighting its sustainability and financial benefits to the community, and opponents claiming it exposes a sensitive species to disruption and economic exploitation.

The turtle project is executed by a local association known as Ulima, which means “turtle” in the Maleku indigenous language, under the supervision of the Environment Ministry. It had been suspended for the past three years for lack of government oversight, and earlier because of a 2005 challenge in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. Recently, however, the program was given the green light to start again.

According to Wilson Barrantes, a legal adviser for the Arenal-Huetar North Conservation Area, which oversees the refuge, a management plan is almost completed, and the project has permission to restart while the draft of the plan is finalized. Already stacks of eggs have been collected.

During a typical turtle nesting season from February to April, the group of 11 association members, with the assistance of two helpers per member, disperses into the neighboring 10,000-hectare Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, hunting for little egg depositories of the Trachemys scripta, more commonly known as the slider turtle.

The telltale signs of a nest can be as subtle as a little mound of dirt or a pile of disturbed leaves used as a makeshift roof for the eggs. The eggs are then dug up and transferred with buckets back to a nursery in Las Cubas, near Caño Negro, where they are placed in raised, wooden beds of sand surrounded by a locked chain-link cage. 

Ulima’s president, Feliciano Urbina, 59, said once the turtles hatch and grow to seven centimeters – after about 80 days – 30 percent are released into the wild at the same spot they were collected, and 70 percent are sold to pet-store distributors in Costa Rica for about $4 each. In the United States, a different subspecies of the slider is the most popular type of pet turtle.

 In a good season the association can collect 25,000 eggs, Urbina said. In wet summers when the water levels rise and drown the nests, the number of eggs collected is less. Association members estimate they earn about $2,500 annually, which rounds out to less than $2 per hour.

“They’re not big earnings,” Urbina said, “but for where we live it’s considerable. There aren’t many sources of work.”

But not everyone in Caño Negro is rejoicing. Napoleón Sequera, who has worked as a guide in the reserve for 25 years, said that while giving tours he has noticed fewer  turtles in their habitat. He is concerned about a lack of oversight in the program, as dozens of people gathering eggs in the vast reserve are difficult – if not impossible – to monitor.

“Who is going to determine how many they are collecting?” he asked.

Mauro Corte, a local hotel owner who provides wildlife tours in the refuge, said he is sad to see the project restarted this year. Corte was active in an effort to put an end to the hatchery, along with his son Andrea Corte, the lawyer who filed the 2005 lawsuit on behalf of an environmental association.

 Mauro Corte also said the effects of selected release could alter the nature of the turtle population, if sick and injured turtles are released and healthy ones sold, or if the released ratio of males-to-females is wrong. He said others in the community share his concerns but are hesitant to speak out.

He said a new study should be completed before the project moves ahead, but added that even if a plan appears sustainable on paper, he doubted there is adequate supervision to enforce it.

“If there is no control, who is going to check to see if they’re returning 30 percent?” he asked. “I’m worried there will be no turtles for my kids when they grow up. Then they’ll deplete the caymen [population], then the Gaspar fish, until they’re all gone.”

On the retail end, some pet store owners are hesitant to sell turtles collected from the reserve, or any fauna taken from national land for that matter. One pet store manager in San José who was familiar with the hatchery said even a regulated program opens the door for abuse of species, and he prefers to sell only domesticated animals raised in captivity.

“You have to be very cautious selling animals from protected areas,” he said. “The animal that you can convert into money creates a large temptation. And the greed of man is tremendous.”

But the association asserts that it is actually helping the turtle population. Urbina said the project originally began by raising turtles in captivity to increase their population, but members of the initial group – who worked as volunteers with scientists and the Environment Ministry in the early 1990s – decided to make the endeavor profitable as well as environmentally beneficial. 

Urbina said the natural rate of survival is actually harsher in the wild. He said only about 40 percent of eggs hatch in the wild, and of those, only about 1 percent reach adulthood. In the program, 30 percent are released and 5 percent survive to adulthood.

Going by the association’s standard, of 10,000 turtle eggs laid in the wild, only 40 turtles survive to adulthood. And of 10,000 eggs hatched through the program, even with the portion sold as pets, 120 will survive to adulthood in the reserve. The slider turtle typically lives 30 years.

Gerardo Blanco, administrator of the refuge, said during the 15 years the project has been in operation – except the three years when the courts halted it – the turtle population has increased in the park. He said taking turtle eggs out of the wild and placing them in a locked nursery protects them from natural predators and humans who gather eggs to sell or eat.

“Raccoons are not the only predators of the turtles,” Blanco said. “The number one predator is man.”

While Blanco said the project remains a success, he admitted the latest comprehensive studies on the turtle program were performed in 1999, although an evaluation was performed in 2008 by a University of Costa Rica biologist. Currently, a scientific study with the National University is underway, Urbina said.

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