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BRAZIL: Amazon Turtles – Illegal Protein for the Poor, Delicacy for the Rich

Mario Osava

BAJO XINGU, Brazil, Dec 19 2011 (IPS) - “Many people lie” about the common practice of poaching turtles to eat or sell, said a man renowned for his fishing skills who lives on the banks of the Xingu river in Brazil’s eastern Amazon jungle region.

A large part of the eggs laid by turtles on the beaches of the Xingu river are lost due to different causes.  Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

A large part of the eggs laid by turtles on the beaches of the Xingu river are lost due to different causes. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

He is an illustration of the risks of engaging in the illegal capture of turtles: he has been fined a total of 45,000 reals (24,000 dollars) by the environmental authorities, a staggering sum for local people.

On the last occasion, he was fined for taking eight Giant Amazon river turtles (Podocnemis expansa). “There were only five of them, and I was going to let the two little ones go and only eat three, but they fined me for eight,” he complained to IPS.

To pay the steep fine, the fisherman, who preferred to remain anonymous, must rely on his income from extracting latex, used for making natural rubber, from rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) which are abundant in the forests of Bajo Xingu.

Brazilian law bans capturing turtles and their eggs; the only exception is for indigenous peoples within their territories. But the law fails to recognise the survival needs of traditional riverside communities and the descendants of African slaves who hunt for subsistence. Offenders incur heavy fines and are sometimes even arrested.

This is neither rational nor just, says biologist Juarez Pezzuti, a professor at the Federal University of Pará, a northern Amazon jungle state.

Communities of poor riverside dwellers face draconian penalties for their traditional subsistence activities, which hardly threaten turtles in comparison with commercial hunting, he said, adding that fishing of truly endangered species is tolerated at the same time.

Furthermore, since 1992, farming of two turtle species most used for human food, the Giant Amazon turtle and the tracajá or yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) has been encouraged, to supply restaurants authorised to offer their customers turtle meat.

Through its Amazon Turtle Project, Brazil’s national environment authority, IBAMA, collects and protects millions of turtle hatchlings in their first weeks of life, to prevent their depredation on the beaches where they hatch, before releasing them into rivers.

But it donates up to 10 percent of the hatchlings to officially recognised turtle farmers. In the case of the yellow-spotted river turtle, up to 20 percent of hatchlings may be handed over.

Hundreds of turtle farms have sprung up without any noticeable reduction of pressure on the turtle populations from hunting and illegal trade. What facts are known indicate that little or nothing has been achieved towards the intended goals: the recovery of reproductive rates and a decrease in the risk of extinction.

Turtle farming for the restaurant trade should be banned, as it transfers to the private sector wild fauna, defined in the constitution as public property that cannot be appropriated, said Pezzuti.

The private turtle farmers are treated completely differently from the riverside dwellers, marking an apparent class distinction. The farmed turtle is served up as a rare delicacy to the patrons of posh restaurants, while the law comes down hard on small-time forest poachers.

And there is another kind of discrimination going on. Turtle meat produced with factory farming techniques, with the creatures taken from their habitat and fattened in captivity in artificial ponds, is granted legal status – unlike the product hunted in the wild, or the potential raising of turtles in their natural habitat.

Modifying the laws that fail to recognise turtle hunting for subsistence so that they allow sustainable catches for food would be an important step towards more effective conservation of turtles and other wildlife, Pezzuti argues.

He also said enforcement of the law is failing, because it is impossible to have enough inspectors in the vast Amazon region. He pointed, meanwhile, to successful examples of participative management in Costa Rica and Ecuador, using turtle eggs from nests trampled by other females, or at risk from river floods.

The ban on turtle hunting frustrates the collection of reliable statistics, sets the local population in opposition to environmental authorities, and hampers integration between traditional and academic knowledge, to the detriment of effective management, the biology professor said.

In order to preserve and even increase turtle populations in the Amazon jungle, Pezzuti proposes including riverside communities as participants in their management. There are community initiatives that have succeeded in recovering populations of these species, but if people are barred from legally enjoying the results, cohesion and long-term management are weakened, he said.

Most of the eggs laid by turtles on beaches in areas like Tabuleiro do Embaubal, a set of more than 100 islands on the final stretch of the Xingu river, never hatch because of flooding of the nests, excessive temperatures and various other causes.

Controlled selective collection of eggs from the most vulnerable nests would not affect the turtles’ reproduction, Pezzuti said.

Turtles are prolific breeders, laying over 100 eggs in most of their nests, a reproductive strategy for ensuring the survival of the species in the face of mass mortality from the elements and natural enemies, like seagulls, vultures, other reptiles and fish.

A tiny percentage of turtle hatchlings reach adulthood. But this situation can favour management: taking a few careful measures against predation losses can ensure rapid multiplication of the species.

Over the past three decades, IBAMA’s Amazon Turtle Project has demonstrated the success of this practice by protecting turtle nests and gathering and raising hatchlings, to give them a survival advantage when they are released into the wild. Predation on the beaches has been minimised, and the turtle populations have made a comeback in many parts of the rainforest.

For poor riverside dwellers, the meat and eggs of Amazon turtles are a much-needed source of protein.

A 2007 study by Maria de Jesus Rodrigues, a professor at the Federal Rural University of Amazonia, and Luciane de Moura, a fisheries engineer, found a very high protein content in wild turtle meat: 79 percent of dry weight, much higher than in beef or in farmed turtles.

But changing the law is difficult. Those in favour of reform are disorganised and scattered, in contrast with the rising tide of environmental activists who will no doubt oppose any relaxation of the ban. And the environmental crimes law, which stiffened penalties, was enacted relatively recently, in 1998.

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