STC Documents Increase in Illegal Harvest of Sea Turtles in Costa Rica and Panama

Issue 2, 2019

STC Documents Increase in Illegal Harvest of Sea Turtles in Costa Rica and Panama

During the 20th century, hawksbill nesting at Chiriquí Beach in the Bocas del Toro Province of Panama was decimated by decades of extensive harvesting for the international tortoiseshell trade. Meanwhile, the globally-important green turtle population nesting at Tortuguero, Costa Rica, was nearly wiped out from decades of harvesting to feed international demand for turtle meat. It is estimated that the hawksbill population along Panama’s Atlantic coast, once the largest in the Caribbean, was reduced by as much as 98% because of the relentless harvest. The size of Tortuguero’s green turtle population was probably reduced by a similar percentage before Costa Rica finally put an end to the unregulated harvest of this species.

STC’s sustained conservation program at Chiriquí Beach, launched in 2003, helped greatly reduce illegal sea turtle harvest and other human-caused threats. As a result of this sustained effort, combined with other protections such as those put in place by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), nesting levels have been showing very encouraging increases.

STC’s activities in Panama include intensive nightly monitoring of nesting at Chiriquí and other nearby beaches; protection of nesting females and their nests; broad public education in the region; training and support for Panama’s resource protection personnel; and cultivation of turtle-based ecotourism that benefits local communities. This work has built upon a decades-long research program conducted by Drs. Anne and Peter Meylan at the nearby Zapatilla Cays since 1989 (now conducted under the auspices of STC).

A species that was once on the brink of extinction in this part of the Caribbean is now recovering thanks to sustained conservation efforts. Unfortunately, one side-effect of this success is that the increased presence of hawksbills around Bocas del Toro has led to an increase in illegal harvesting activity. Locals who used to harvest hawksbills back in the day are seeing more turtles in the water and on the beach, and STC is beginning to observe and hear reports of increased take of hawksbills in the area. The very activity that almost wiped out this species could jeopardize the remarkable progress made in recent decades to recover hawksbills.

STC is seeing a nearly identical situation unfold with green turtles at the site of our six-decades-long conservation program at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. After achieving an estimated 600% increase in green turtle nesting, illegal harvesting is on the rise at the beach where STC founder Dr. Archie Carr launched the world’s first sustained sea turtle protection program. Tortuguero’s green turtle population, the largest remaining in the Western Hemisphere (and possibly the world) is showing the first signs of decline after a long recovery that started in the 1970s. A major factor behind this decline is the unregulated harvest of thousands of adult green turtles each year from the waters of the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua—the largest known foraging ground for adult green turtles in the Atlantic. This threat has persisted for decades, even as the Tortuguero colony has been growing.

Adding to the problem for green turtles is an influx of people living in Tortuguero who know nothing and/or care little about the history of turtle protection that has benefitted both the people and wildlife of the region. Instead, they view the immense number of nests on the beach as an opportunity to harvest both turtles and their eggs. People by the hundreds have settled in Tortuguero over the last decade, coming from other areas of Costa Rica and even from Nicaragua, where harvesting turtles and eggs is still a way of life. They have little regard for laws banning the practice, and local law enforcement officials are struggling to keep up with the rise of illegal harvesting, even within the boundaries of Tortuguero National Park.

On a fairly regular basis, STC staff and volunteers observe people in the act of digging up turtle eggs, and we occasionally find adult turtles that have been flipped over and dragged into the vegetation behind the beach, most likely by turtle hunters who ran off as STC beach monitors approached. These troubling but all-too-common incidents are immediately reported to local law enforcement.

In early August, as STC staff members from the Gainesville office were visiting Tortuguero for the start of the Tour de Turtles program, our research coordinator, Jaime Restrepo, was contacted by local policemen who had confiscated several bags containing nearly 1,000 green turtle eggs taken from turtle hunters spotted leaving the beach. Working quickly but delicately, STC staff reburied the eggs by re-creating ten turtle nests in a safe location near our station. Thanks to the swift action of local police, these particular eggs now have a good chance of hatching successfully, but for many others the story will not end as well.

In response to these concerning developments in Panama and Costa Rica, STC has stepped up its coordination with law enforcement agencies. It is not STC’s place to enforce laws, but we can provide eyes on the beach to help detect and report illegal harvesting activity. STC is expanding efforts to train, motivate and support the under-staffed and overwhelmed park guards and law enforcement personnel responsible for protecting sea turtles in remote Tortuguero and Bocas del Toro.

STC also is working hard to motivate local families in these areas to join us in speaking up for the turtles in order to protect a resource that is providing sustained income for the community through ecotourism. With the ongoing support of members, sponsors and contributing foundations, STC will remain vigilant in combating the resurging threat of illegal poaching at our various project sites in Latin America.