Biodiversity, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT: Quest for the Amazon Turtles

Mario Osava and Alejandro Kirk* - IPS/IFEJ

SANTARÉM, Brazil, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - Looking back, Mario Maranhão concludes that being a conservationist was always in his nature. When he had to hunt for a living, he "only killed enough to eat, and never went after the female animals," he says. Five years ago, he took on the mission of rescuing turtles that hatch near Alter do Chão, a natural paradise located in eastern Amazonia.

In search of turtles. Credit: Alejandro Kirk/IPS

In search of turtles. Credit: Alejandro Kirk/IPS

But it was only after linking up with academic researchers that this 52-year-old Brazilian tour guide’s environmental work became systematic and organised.

Over the last three years he has been combing the surrounding beaches night after night, from late September through early December, in search of nests containing freshly-laid turtle eggs.

Tracajás or yellow-spotted Amazon river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) usually lay their eggs in the evening, between 6 and 10 pm, and pitiús or six-tubercled Amazon river turtles (Podocnemis sextuberculata) lay them later at night, between 1 and 4 am. Their nesting habits have forced Maranhão to spend long, solitary nights on the beach, and almost cost him his marriage.

The nest watch ends almost two months later, when the eggs hatch. Maranhão then takes the hatchlings home to care for them for another two months before releasing them on the beautiful beaches of the Lago Verde, which are a great tourist attraction, drawing many visitors to the small town of Alter do Chão, located in the municipality of Santarém, some 800 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Amazon river.

All this care is directed at preventing people from eating the eggs, and keeping natural predators like hawks and fish from doing away with the hatchlings, in order to restore the population of native turtle species.


The turtles are very prolific. Amazon turtles (Podocnemis expansa), the region’s largest species, can lay more than 100 eggs per nest. But few hatchlings make it to adulthood, due to heavy predation on the eggs and the young before their shells have hardened.

Which is why Juárez Pezzuti, a professor at the Federal University of Pará and coordinator of several research studies on Amazonian aquatic fauna, sees management by residents of local riverbank villages as a good solution to ensuring conservation and growth of turtle populations.

In animals with such high fertility and mortality rates, just a small amount of care during breeding season can have a multiplying effect, he says.

A government-led breeding project, which returned tens of millions of baby animals to several Amazon rivers and has protected 115 breeding sites since the 1980s, succeeded in dispelling the threat of extinction that hung over turtles, and in recovering the populations of these and other species.

Pezzuti sees community management as a solution for both ecological and social reasons. Brazil banned the hunting or fishing of turtles – and certain other wild animals – back in 1967.

But the local population still eats turtle meat and eggs, in many cases because it is one of their few sources of food. When the larger species, such as tracajás, are in short supply, people also rely on smaller turtles.

Protecting females from being captured as they lay their eggs, for example, eliminates the leading factor in the reduction of certain species. Directing egg collection to nests exposed to flooding, cattle treading or a high concentration of nesting females also boosts turtle populations, which is also important for meeting the food needs of the local people.

Turtles, which used to be very abundant, played a significant role over the last three hundred years as a source of food in Brazil’s Amazon region. The expansion of the local population and the increasing market value of turtles – as their meat turned into an expensive delicacy and their oil was used for street lighting – led to overexploitation and endangerment.

Pezzuti, an ethno-ecologist who researched turtle breeding in Amazonia for his master’s and doctoral theses, recognises how valuable the knowledge of the local people is for his studies, which is why he speaks of joint management and seeks to combine traditional with academic knowledge.

"Eurocentric" science, he says, tends to ignore popular experience, thus hindering the progress of research and often leading to erroneous results. "My work would not be possible without resorting to the knowledge gathered over centuries by the people of the Amazon," he says.

Rachel Leite, another scientist who is working on Lago Verde turtles for her master’s thesis under Pezzuti’s guidance, also conducts her research with the support of local people like Maranhão and Paulo de Jesus, a boatman and experienced turtle hunter.

In a joint researcher and journalist expedition, de Jesus demonstrated how he contributes to the research work, diving two meters deep in an "igapó" (flooded forest area) in Lago Verde and catching five turtles, tracajás and pirangas (Chelonoidis carbonaria), with his bare hands.

His sharp eye, which allowed him to spot the turtles where two researchers and a journalist venturing in muddy green waters saw nothing, reveals the skills he developed when he hunted turtles for his livelihood and continues to develop now in his current occupation, catching tropical fish for aquariums.

Today he puts his skills at the service of science, which may be why he is reluctant to answer when asked if he would ever eat a turtle again.

Leite, who has been studying turtles in Lago Verde since September, identifies, measures and marks the animals they find, and then releases them at the same spot where they were caught. She recalls how at first the task "seemed hopeless; we just couldn’t find any animals."

But later, the fishermen explained that the animals were "buried in the mud," due to the ebb tide, when water levels can drop as much as six metres.

Now, with the Tapajós river – which feeds the lake – at flood level, it is easier to spot them: on tree trunks, sunbathing or underwater. Leite’s study will estimate the population of the five species found in Lago Verde and their geographical and seasonal distribution. The measurements and the marks on each animal’s shell will enable her to monitor the animals’ growth in subsequent captures, the biologist explains.

To study the animals’ reproduction, she relies on Maranhão, another practical expert who can spot nests where few can see any alterations on the sand. In his night rounds he not only finds the nests, but also erases the traces left by the females, so that hunters cannot find their eggs.

Maranhão’s calling has also turned him into an environmental educator, taking children and tourists to see baby turtles hatching. The effectiveness of this experience is evident in Roberto Santos, the boatman who transports the team of researchers and journalist to observe five nests, two of which contain 10 hatchlings that Maranhão takes back to his nursery.

Santos says he is moved by the sight of the hatchlings and that the experience has turned him into a "protector of turtles." "Seeing them hatch has opened my eyes to something I wasn’t aware of," he says.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org). Not for publication in Italy.

 
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