Initiated in 2003, the Chiriquí Beach, Panama, Leatherback and Hawksbill Turtle Project is already a glowing success. In June 2006, the project took another huge step forward with the signing of a landmark agreement between the Government of Panama, the local Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous community and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. Meanwhile, the research component of the project continues to uncover exciting information about poorly understood, yet globally significant, nesting populations of leatherback and hawksbill turtles, both considered critically endangered.
This June, a contingent of CCC representatives traveled to Chiriquí Beach, along with members of Panama’s National Environment Authority (ANAM) to formalize a three-way agreement between CCC, the Panamanian government and the Ngöbe-Buglé people. Though all three parties have been working together on various facets of the project since it started three years ago, it wasn’t until last month that a formal agreement could be finalized and signed in person by leaders representing each group. To celebrate the signing of the agreement, the community held a public reception complete with traditional singing and dancing, followed by a community feast. Several hundred local citizens assembled in the decorated town center to hear speeches by each of the project partners. CCC Executive Director David Godfrey thanked the community for their hospitality and for their commitment to the goals of the project. Local school children and young adults performed traditional songs and dances celebrating the bounty of the Earth and reinforcing the need to protect life sustaining natural resources.
In signing the agreement, the Ngöbe-Buglé leaders committed to supporting all the goals of the project, especially the goals to protect and recover sea turtles. CCC was also granted official access to this remote, semi-autonomous region of the Caribbean coast of Panama. CCC, through the project’s field coordinator, Cristina Ordoñez, will coordinate all activities with the Ngöbe-Buglés and ANAM, while also providing training and jobs for local community members interested in working on the project. With over a dozen full-time turtle surveyors, boat captains and cooks, this project already is a primary source of employment and training in the region. In addition to turtle research and recovery, part of the project’s mission is to help the community to replace revenue derived from non-sustainable turtle consumption with sustainable eco-tourism that capitalizes on the robust local turtle populations and the incredible diversity of remote tropical wilderness around Chiriquí Beach.
The Ngöbe-Buglé people have lived in this region of Panama for thousands of years and have a long-standing traditional use of sea turtles for subsistence as a source of revenue for the community. The community has recognized, however, that hawksbill populations have dwindled considerably and that a more sustainable source of income might be established through the protection and recovery of this species. In an interesting quirk of local tradition, the Ngöbe-Buglé hold the leatherback turtle in very high esteem as an important symbol of fertility. As a result of this belief system, the local population of leatherbacks have faced very little disturbance by man.
This, combined with the highly remote location of Chiriquí Beach, has allowed the leatherback population to thrive. The project’s early nesting studies have found this beach to host one of the top four nesting aggregations of leatherbacks remaining in the world. By working closely with the community and government officials to protect the nesting beach and reduce the harvest of hawksbills in the region, this project stands a real chance of recovering this greatly imperiled species, while also protecting the robust leatherback colony.
While at Chiriquí Beach, CCC researchers deployed two satellite transmitters on leatherbacks after they completed nesting. This increases to five the total number of leatherbacks tracked from this beach. Regularly updated maps depicting these turtles’ movements can be accessed for free on CCC’s website at conserveturtles.org. Previous tracking studies found that some of the leatherbacks nesting in this region traveled into the Gulf of Mexico, where they appeared to reside for most of the year to forage. Still others from this beach traveled east through the Caribbean and into the open north Atlantic before their transmitters ceased to transmit. This latest tracking project is supported by the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut, Shark Reef Aquarium in Las Vegas, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and the World Wildlife Fund.
The Chiriquí Beach project is a component of a larger Caribbean Panama sea turtle conservation program, which is carried out and supported by a diversity of NGOs and government agencies. Some of the main project partners include the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Drs. Anne and Peter Meylan (Wildlife Conservation Society), World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Local partners include ANAM and the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca.
As part of the long-term nest monitoring conducted under this program, eight different nesting sites in the immediate vicinity of Chiriquí Beach are monitored throughout the year. During 2005, CCC and project partners Anne and Peter Meylan documented a total of 695 hawksbill nests and 4,775 leatherback nests—making Chiriquí Beach and its adjacent nesting sites some of the most important turtle nesting habitat in the world for both species.