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Perla Torres, Turtle Nesting Beach Coordinator for Fauna & Flora International in Nicaragua, reflects on her experiences of marine turtle nesting beach conservation and monitoring.
However you look at it, eight years is a long time. For me it began with sea turtles. In 2004, as a biology student with drive and a desire to learn, I discovered one of my three great passions in life as I embarked on a journey to meet one of the most beautiful and powerful species which exists on this planet: the leatherback turtle.
These giant reptiles – powerful, unique, solitary, fragile and vulnerable creatures – have chosen a remote, unknown and isolated beach in Nicaragua, called “Veracruz de Acayo”, as one of their sanctuaries in which to place the future of their species. It was there, one dark night – accompanied by Jamie, a member of FFI’s community patrol team - that I first saw a nesting leatherback turtle. The excitement I felt at that instant remains with me to this day, a permanent impression and a moment in time that will stay in my mind for my entire life: a moment which shaped my commitment to conserve sea turtles.
With Jamie and the rest of the FFI project team, I learned the basics of turtle monitoring. Since then the sea turtles and I have been faithful friends! The road has not been easy; it has been full of successes and failures, with losses and rewards, knowledge and experiences – a struggle against time each nesting season to ensure that turtles are safe on our beaches.
So, what has it meant to work with sea turtles? And what is the task of conserving and protecting them really like?
Working with sea turtles is often described as involving long cold nights, lots of walking, shoes filled with heavy sand, hunger, fatigue (alleviated by good Nicaraguan coffee!) and annoying mosquitoes. But that is only part of the picture that we, “Los Tortugueros”, live – one that many people would consider a sacrifice without reward. This is our reality.
Our work on the beach I would describe like a fantastic drama where human stories intertwine with those of the turtles: a poacher from a disadvantaged coastal community, a turtle instinctively seeking to lay her eggs in order to survive, a park ranger and patrol team working to conserve the turtles by monitoring and relocating nests to the egg hatchery, and a soldier enforcing the law and guarding the beach. All these situations come together, interacting and sometimes competing to the point of becoming difficult to understand or control. But what they do not know is that each person in this drama has an important role to play – this ranger, that soldier, the conservationist, the poacher, this child and woman from the local community – they are all in the same place for one reason: the turtles. And that is the critical point where conservation needs to be done and can make a real difference for these species.
Experiencing this ‘drama’ has made me realize that conservation goes beyond monitoring, following protocols, counting turtles, tagging individuals, relocating nests, building a hatchery, or spending night after night walking, as I initially had thought. I have learnt this over time and, better still, I have been able to live amongst and understand the people who live in the communities near the beaches which these reptiles visit.
The task of conserving sea turtles is something that I’m still learning about and there is no all-encompassing instruction manual for carrying it out! It is a continuous search for the pieces of the puzzle that unite all these relations – turtles, human beings, their needs, and nature – and bring them into balance. A marathon task!!!
However, fortunately for me I have found a space where I can work to take on this task. Eight years ago I decided to join FFI’s Marine Turtle Conservation Programme, which has ensured that Nicaragua’s marine turtles are now celebrated, studied and experienced. Over the last ten years, FFI has sown seeds full of hope – it has helped the children, young people and adults of the local communities understand the importance of this resource that they have; it has created opportunities to change local livelihoods by promoting turtle-friendly economic alternatives; it has established national-level networks for communication and exchange of experience amongst people working with sea turtles, to strengthen the monitoring system; and we have helped train new generations of professionals who will continue this important work for many years. It is not possible for me to list all of the achievements I have seen from these 10 years of work, but this is an indication that we are on the right track and that we must not rest.
I, for the time being, can go on sitting in the warm sand, watching and enjoying the quiet and gorgeous sunsets from the nesting beaches at Chacocente, Salamina, Juan Venado, Estero Padre Ramos, Veracruz de Acayo and Astillero. And at nightfall I can calmly do what I like most – to walk and to watch my friends, the seas turtles, nesting and then departing into the water, and to later see the results emerge of this ten years of conservation effort.