STC Programs: Research: Soropta Beach, Panama

STC’s Research Assistantship Application for 2019 Season

 

Leatherback turtle nesting on Soropta Beach, Panama. Photo by Ben Hicks Photography without a flash.

Since 2003, Sea Turtle Conservancy has been working to recover hawksbill turtles at Chiriquí Beach, Panama – a remote, 20-mile stretch of coastline just south of Bocas del Toro that is one of the most important hawksbill nesting sites in the Caribbean. Hawksbill nesting at Chiriquí was nearly wiped out by decades of extensive harvesting for the international tortoiseshell trade. However, STC’s sustained presence has greatly reduced poaching and other threats, and nesting levels are increasing each season. While STC’s work at Chiriquí began as an initiative to recover hawksbills, it has been exciting to discover that this same beach hosts the fourth-largest nesting colony of leatherbacks in the world, with up to 6,000 nests per year.

In 2012, STC took advantage of a fantastic opportunity to expand its leatherback conservation work in Panama to include a site at Soropta Beach, a nearby stretch of coast just 7 km long, which hosts over 600 leatherback nests per year. STC was approached by the London-based Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which has monitored and protected leatherbacks at Soropta Beach since 2002. For financial reasons, EWT is no longer able to operate the project at Soropta, and they have asked STC to take it over and manage the project.

STC staff housing at Soropta station. Photo by Ben Hicks Photography.

Before EWT began its initiative ten years ago, nearly 100% of all eggs were being harvested from the beach. Even more disturbing, a significant number of nesting leatherbacks were being killed on the beach so their eggs and flippers could be harvested – leaving the rest of the poor turtles to rot on the beach. EWT’s intervention virtually eliminated egg poaching, and nesting by leatherbacks has increased from around 450 nests per year in 2002 to a high of 675 in 2010. Without a year-round conservation presence at Soropta, poachers will move back in and erase the gains of the past decade. STC’s goal is to continue the successful program set up by EWT to protect this critical leatherback nesting beach.

Expanding STC’s work in Panama to include Soropta fits perfectly with our ongoing research and conservation programs at Chiriquí Beach and other nearby nesting sites. While protecting Soropta’s leatherbacks, the new program also opens up exciting opportunities for training turtle biologists and launching an eco-volunteer program for people interested in working specifically with leatherbacks.

STC’s Soropta Beach Research Station. Photo by Ben Hicks Photography.

STC’s research and conservation work at Soropta is based out of a modest camp that includes lodging for staff and volunteers, plus a small cafeteria, storage and restroom/shower facilities. Most importantly, in addition to the camp facilities, STC acquired 35 acres of prime beachfront property along the nesting beach at Soropta. Thanks to generous support from the Firedoll Foundation, STC was able to purchase the land and existing station facilities from EWT.

STC took over management and protection of this critical leatherback nesting site at the start of 2013.

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