CCC Launches Ambitious Hawksbill and Leatherback Conservation Project in Panama

Issue 2, 2003 Articles:

* CCC Launches Ambitious Hawksbill and Leatherback
Conservation Project in Panama

* Tracking the Largest Turtles on Earth

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CCC Launches Ambitious Hawksbill and Leatherback
Conservation Project in Panama

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation has launched a bold new project to protect and restore the once globally significant hawksbill sea turtle nesting population at Chiriquí Beach in the Bocas del Toro Province of Panama. The work will consist of a coordinated program of intensive monitoring of turtle nesting activity, protection of nesting females and their nests, and public education at three related nesting sites in the Chiriquí region.

The primary focus of the project will be the initiation of a long-term hawksbill monitoring and protection program at Chiriquí Beach. This remote beach on Panama’s Caribbean shore was once described by Dr. Archie Carr as the most important nesting beach in the Caribbean for the “critically endangered” hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). However, by the 1980s and 1990s, sporadic aerial and ground surveys suggested that nesting had declined as much as 98% from previous levels (Meylan and Donnelly, 1999). The decline was attributed to the extensive harvest of nesting hawksbills to support the international trade in tortoiseshell.

The Río Cañaveral rivermouth on Chiriquí Beach, Panama.

Although today’s nesting population is only a fraction of what it once was, there is increased optimism that depleted hawksbill populations can respond positively to long-term protection. This optimism is based on increased hawksbill nesting activity in recent years on well-protected beaches in Mexico, Barbados and Puerto Rico. In Panama, increased hawksbill nesting has been observed at Zapatilla Cays in the last few years (Meylan and Meylan, unpublished data), very likely due to the enhanced protection that hawksbills have received since the cays became a part of a new national marine park in 1988. In addition, results from CCC’s sustained protection programs at other sea turtle nesting beaches, in particular at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, give us confidence that depleted sea turtle populations can be restored through long-term, coordinated protection of nesting beaches and foraging grounds. CCC is confident that the hawksbill population nesting at Chiriquí Beach and other nearby beaches will respond similarly to long-term protection.

Based on recent aerial surveys conducted by CCC Scientific Director Sebastian Troëng, Chiriquí Beach remains one of the most densely nested leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) beaches in the Atlantic. These surveys indicate that as many as 7,170 to 14,005 leatherback nests are deposited yearly between the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border and Central Caribbean Panama (Troëng et al., 2002). Within this area, Chiriquí Beach hosts the most significant nesting, estimated to make up 36-41% of all leatherback nests along the surveyed coast. Some monitoring and tagging of leatherbacks has been carried out in recent years at Chiriquí Beach as part of a cooperative initiative by community groups. Expanded, systematic monitoring of leatherback nesting will have an immediate scientific and conservation benefit, while providing training and educational opportunities, and promoting a local turtle conservation ethic.

Through this new Panama project, CCC will launch a coordinated program of protection and intensive monitoring of turtle nesting activity at three related sites: Chiriquí Beach, Escudo de Veraguas and the Zapatilla Cays. The project will involve and train local students and indigenous Ngöbe community leaders in order to build a direct association between the community and the project. Community education programs will be developed in coordination with local groups in order to increase community stewardship over hawksbills. Ngöbe leaders will be given guidance and information to assist them in the development of sustainable ecotourism that allows the community to profit from the sustained protection of sea turtles.

Because of its length, the 29-km Chiriqui Beach will be surveyed on horseback, using teams stationed in the Ngöbe communities at each end of the beach. Regular surveys of the entire beach have already begun to document daily estimates on nesting. These surveys also provide passive protection to nesting turtles by discouraging poachers. Hawksbills encountered on the beach are flipper-tagged and measured, and small tissue samples are taken for later genetic analysis. A similar protocol will be used for leatherbacks encountered on the beach. In addition to beach surveys, nests will be marked for evaluation of hatching success rates. Results will help identify and quantify threats such as poaching, predation, erosion and innundation.

The Zapatilla Cays are one of three sites of being protected and monitored by CCC’s Panama Project.

This project offers a fantastic opportunity to recover hawksbills and leatherbacks at one of the most historically significant nesting beaches for these species in the world. All the essential ingredients are in-hand to make the project a success. The Panamanian government and Ngöbe community leaders are enthusiastic about the project and are ready to support a long-term sea turtle monitoring, protection and education program.

The Bocas del Toro/ Chiriquí Beach region of Panama is well isolated and protected from serious environmental degradation. Chiriquí Beach and Zapatilla Cays were recently selected as candidate index beaches for population trend evaluation at the CITES Wider Caribbean Hawksbill Turtle Dialogues held in Mexico and the Cayman Islands in 2001 and 2002. Most importantly, Chiriquí Beach lies within the newly established Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé, a semiautonomous region along Panama’s Caribbean coast, and representatives of the Comarca have expressed a commitment to protect their natural resources and to support a restoration effort on behalf of hawksbills and leatherbacks.

This project, if sustained over a number of years, should help recover and protect the hawksbill and leatherback populations of Chiriquí Beach and adjacent nesting sites. The work begun this year represents the first critical step toward that goal, and the right mix of government, nonprofit, and community leaders are already strongly committed to the project. CCC’s work in Panama will build upon an ongoing research project carried out since 1989 by Drs. Anne and Peter Meylan. The Meylans’ work in Panama has been supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). This new project will mimic the success achieved by CCC in its long-term green turtle recovery program at Tortuguero. The project will be carried out as a cooperative effort under the direction of CCC, with direct support and/or funding provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WCS, the Panamanian wildlife authority (ANAM), National Marine Fisheries Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the University of Panama, APRORENAMB (a local conservation group in Panama), the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).