Developing Ecotourism Supports Local Community and Sea Turtle Conservation

Issue 1, 2013

Developing Ecotourism Supports Local Community and Sea Turtle Conservation

By Dr. Emma Harrison

Bluff Beach is a beautiful white sand beach on one of the many islands that make up the Bocas del Toro archipelago, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Tourists love to admire the view, surfers enjoy the breaks, and now the beach is being recognized as an important nesting site for critically-endangered leatherback and hawksbill turtles.

Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) became involved in Bluff Beach in 2010, when the filming of a Survivor-style TV program created an international scandal due to the apparent disregard by the production company for the damage they were causing to the fragile habitat and the subsequent impact on sea turtles and their nests. STC Research Coordinator Cristina Ordoñez was asked by local government officials to provide technical advice to reduce the negative impacts of the filming activities on sea turtles and beach habitat.

Residents of the small indigenous community at Bluff Beach also took note of what was happening. Their concern for the sea turtles nesting at Bluff Beach became the catalyst for the creation of a local community conservation organization, the Bocas Hawksbill Association (Asociación Natural Bocas Carey – ANABOCA).

Irresponsible filming is just one of numerous threats facing sea turtles at Bluff Beach. Intensive sand extraction has also contributed to an unstable beach environment, compounded in recent years by coastal development resulting in the loss of vegetation behind the beach, and an increase in artificial lights. Add to this the continuing illegal poaching of eggs and nesting females, and the situation needs immediate attention. STC began its work at Bluff Beach by providing training to the local community in sea turtle monitoring and conservation techniques. Members of ANABOCA now work as beach monitors under the employment of STC, collecting information on turtle species nesting at this site and assessing threats to their survival.

Since 2011, STC has been leading a project to develop sustainable sea turtle eco-tourism with financial support from the USAID Regional Program for the Management of Aquatic Resources and Economic Alternatives. The project’s objectives are to provide economic benefits to the local community, sustainable funding for turtle conservation initiatives, and a unique opportunity for visitors to Bocas del Toro to witness sea turtles nesting in a controlled setting.

An important part of this project was a Sea Turtle Nature Interpreter training workshop conducted in 2012. Residents from Bluff Beach and other coastal indigenous communities participated in the 3-day course, during which everyone increased their knowledge about sea turtles. They also had an opportunity to practice the interpretative skills needed to successfully lead safe and informative sea turtle walks for groups of visitors in the future.

Additionally, the project created the Bluff Beach Advisory Group, which includes representatives from STC, ANABOCA, local nonprofits, municipal government, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The Advisory Group helped design an information brochure that is being used to promote sea turtle walks at Bluff Beach.

Beach monitors have completed their training for the 2013 leatherback nesting season at Bluff Beach. STC is promoting the official turtle walks at hotels, local businesses and to visitors. Through this collaborative project, travelers to Bocas del Toro now have a chance to witness this amazing natural phenomenon while supporting community development and turtle conservation efforts.