Money Talks and Turtles Prosper, CCC’s Tortuguero Efforts Have Global Impact

Issue 2, 2004 Articles:

* Money Talks and Turtles Prosper, CCC’s Tortuguero Efforts Have Global Impact
* Beach Nourishment and Turtles – Can They Get Along?

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Money Talks and Turtles Prosper,
CCC’s Tortuguero Efforts Have Global Impact

By Sebastian Troëng

Sea turtle conservation works! At least that is the case at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, where CCC’s pioneering conservation efforts are paying off—both for endangered green turtles and people living in the area. The results of two ground-breaking studies prepared by CCC staff in May 2004 emphasize how incredibly successful the cornerstone of the organization’s conservation work has really been.

The first study, written by CCC Scientific Director Sebastian Troëng and titled “Money Talks: Economic Aspects of Marine Turtle Use and Conservation,” was funded and published by the World Wildlife Fund. This global study analyzed gross revenue from the consumptive use of sea turtles for eggs, meat and other products and compared that to gross revenue from non-consumptive sea turtles use, mainly in the form of tourism to observe turtles on nesting beaches and in the water. Revenue from tourism was nearly three times greater than revenue from consumptive use at 18 case study sites in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Zelmira Williams, a local tour guide, shines a red filtered flashlight to show a group of tourists the eggs as they drop into the nest of a green sea turtle in Tortuguero, Costa Rica.

Tortuguero, where Dr. Archie Carr began work in 1955 and where CCC has carried out the research and conservation program since its founding in 1959, is the case study site at which sea turtle use generates the greatest revenue. The nesting green turtles are an important tourism attraction in Tortuguero National Park, and each year thousands of tourists come to visit the place to observe endangered green turtles lay their eggs. In 2002, as many as 26,292 tourists paid to go on guided sea turtle walks. On average, these tourists collectively spend $6.7 million (US) each year during their visits, turning sea turtle tourism into the region’s most important economic activity. At Tortuguero, local tour guides proudly state that a live green turtle brings in more money through tourism than the hunting of turtles for meat and eggs.

The economic study also pointed out that developing countries stand most to loose from sea turtle decline and have most to win from successful conservation. Two-thirds of the countries studied have at least one species of sea turtle that through tourism and other activities can produce income and employment. This economic assessment of turtle conservation was the first large-scale study of its kind, and it is having a significant impact around the world. The publication was reported on by newspapers and TV media on six continents, and natural resource managers around the world are accessing the study to help guide decision making.

In addition to the Money Talks report, CCC staff conducted a study analyzing the status of the Tortuguero green turtle colony itself. Green turtle nest surveys conducted since 1971 were analyzed, and the results were reported in a paper published by the scientific journal Biological Conservation in May 2004. The trend analysis was based on nest census surveys conducted by locally hired CCC surveyors, most of whom have been members of Tortuguero’s Rankin family. Their contribution to the Tortuguero program was recognized by the inclusion of the most recent Rankin track surveyor, Eddy, as one of the study’s co-authors.

Centuries of hunting for meat, oil, skins and collection of eggs on nesting beaches reduced global green turtle populations to a point where the species is now considered endangered. In Tortuguero, however, the study found that green turtle nesting had increased an impressive 417% between 1971 and 2003! Major contributing factors to this positive trend include CCC’s long-term monitoring and turtle protection program, Costa Rica’s commitment to conservation and the country’s willingness to take progressive steps to strengthen sea turtle protection within its borders. Since sea turtle research and conservation was initiated in Tortuguero by Dr. Carr and the CCC, the area has been declared a National Park; green turtle hunting and egg collection have been banned; and recent legislation established prison terms for those harming Costa Rica’s sea turtles.

The study found that during the last five years an average of 104,411 green turtle nests have been deposited at Tortuguero each year. Since a nesting female turtle deposits several nests each season, it is estimated that between 17,402-37,290 adult female green turtles nest at Tortuguero each year. This establishes the nesting population as one of the two largest remaining green turtle rookeries in the world. View nesting trend graph.

The nesting increase shows that long-term conservation efforts produce results and offers hope that recovery is possible for other species and populations of endangered sea turtles around the world. These finding also demonstrate the importance and effectiveness of CCC’s work in the region.

Although both studies offer very good news, much work remains before the future of sea turtles can be considered secure. Green turtles, leatherbacks, hawksbills and other turtle species continue to face serious threats to their survival.

“Sub-adult green turtles are hunted extensively on their major feeding grounds in Nicaragua,” says Sebastian Troëng, lead author of both studies. “Due to the slow maturity of green turtles, the full impact of the Nicaraguan fishery may not be seen at the nesting beach in Tortuguero for several years. Sea turtles are shared resources that must be managed through international cooperation. Our findings show that conservation works and that economic benefits from sea turtle tourism can be greater than those derived from turtle hunting.”

The publication of both these studies will mark 2004 as a milestone year in CCC’s long-term efforts to protect sea turtles in Tortuguero and to promote sea turtle conservation worldwide. Working together, CCC and its members must build on these recent achievements and work together to recover sea turtles to their former abundance—only then will sea turtles fulfill their important ecological roles in the marine and coastal ecosystems.

PDF versions of the two studies described in this article, “Long-term conservation efforts contribute to positive green turtle Chelonia mydas nesting trend at Tortuguero, Costa Rica” & “Money Talks: Economics of Marine Turtle Use and Conservation,” can be obtained for free by sending a request to CCC at