Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Balancing on a Turtle's Back: Species Protection versus Human Needs in Panama

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Balancing on a Turtle's Back: Species Protection versus Human Needs in Panama

Article excerpt

Each year, on a few dark nights in a secluded cove of Panama's Azuero Peninsula, thousands of olive ridley sea turtles emerge from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs in the sand. Each one, out of water for perhaps the first time since birth, heaves her cumbersome body to dry land where she performs a slow ritual, using her back flippers as shovels to dig a hole more than a foot deep. There she lays up to 80 golf-ball-sized eggs, all coated in a clear gooey liquid. She then packs and brushes the sand over the nest to hide any trace of the nest below.

Campesinos from Guanico Abajo, the village nearest the sea turtles' nesting grounds, have always collected sea turtle eggs as a supplemental food source for their families. The small quantities they collected would probably not have threatened the survival of sea turtles. It's only in the last five years that commercial markets for turtle eggs have developed in Panama City's high-end restaurants. Before, only a few families harvested eggs for personal consumption; poachers now arrive from faraway towns and leave with sacks full of eggs.

The problem wouldn't be so serious if the turtle's natural survival rate were not so low. A mature olive ridley turtle can lay up to 300 eggs a year. Of those, about 90 percent will hatch. Predation by vultures, raccoons, and a host of other animals reduces the immediate survival rate to only 5 percent, or about 15 baby turtles making it into the crashing waves. Of the original 300 eggs, just one will reach sexual maturity in the deep sea. When poor farmers wait with empty sacks on the beach every night, and beaches are developed for commerce, and destructive fishing practices kill turtles at sea, that number drops swiftly to zero. All seven species of sea turtles are endangered; five of them nest on Panama's beaches.

The Panamanian government would have trouble telling its people to give up income. Funding beach patrols is an even greater challenge. The fact that the locals who derive income from egg collection are destroying their natural capital rarely fits into the equation.

In Guanico Abajo, the Panamanian Environmental Authority is implementing an innovative sustainable management strategy that just might benefit both the sea turtles and the egg collectors. Instead of indiscriminately harvesting as many eggs as possible, the Environmental Authority has divided the beach into sections based on hatching rate. Eggs laid in the center of the beach are off limits to collectors. But eggs laid at the beach's peripheries, where two streams often flood the beach and destroy the eggs, can be collected. In addition, a hatchery has been set up where a certain percentage of eggs from the peripheries are placed and guarded until they hatch. …

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