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Alison Gunn, Programme Manager, Americas & Caribbean for Fauna & Flora International reflects on the first time she witnessed a turtle coming ashore and laying her eggs – and how far the programme has come since.
I will never forget the first time I saw the ancient ritual of a marine turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs. In 2005, on one of Nicaragua’s endless Pacific beaches, it was an olive ridley who lumbered up the sand and laboured through the process of digging her nest, laying the eggs and then delicately covering them over. I was witnessing a primitive, predetermined behavioural routine which has not changed for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. The contrast with my studies of the behaviour and intelligence of monkeys and apes, which originally propelled me into the field of conservation, could not have been more stark!
At that point in time Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) marine turtle conservation programme in Nicaragua was only in its third season. Our work focussed on a single, albeit very long, nesting beach important for both leatherbacks and the mass-nesting of olive ridley turtles. We had limited resources and Jose – now FFI’s resident ‘turtle champion’ – was our only worker on the project. But his natural flare for engaging with people meant that Jose had already established strong relationships with the environmental authorities and local communities alike, ensuring that our efforts to protect the beach and establish an egg hatchery were successful.
Over the intervening years, in my role as Programme Manager for FFI’s Americas & Caribbean regional programme, I have continued to support the development and implementation of our turtle conservation work in Nicaragua. We have gradually expanded to protect additional sites, including Nicaragua’s two other principal leatherback nesting beaches and a recently discovered nesting site now known to be one of the most important for hawksbill turtles in the entire eastern Pacific. We have also spearheaded a number of national initiatives. In 2006, FFI led the development of a government-approved 15-year strategy to guide marine turtle conservation action on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. In 2007, we launched a national awareness campaign aimed at reducing the demand for eggs and other turtle products, which has now reached an estimated 50% of the population.
Supported by a diverse range of donors, FFI’s turtle conservation programme now works closely with a network of partners – authorities, academic institutions, non-governmental organisations and community groups – to protect these majestic creatures on Nicaragua’s shores. It has been wonderful to see the scope and impact of this work increase so much over the years; it has become a true ‘flagship’ project within FFI’s Americas and Caribbean regional programme.
I have been back to Nicaragua many times, spending multiple nights joining the beach patrols protecting the nesting turtles. Unfortunately I am yet to see a gigantic leatherback – they were a common sight on these beaches a generation ago, but now only a few individuals nest each season. However, I have seen many leatherback hatchlings released to the sea and this gives me hope. Hope that we are not too late and all is not lost for these Critically Endangered species, and hope that one day I will get the opportunity to witness the precious sight of a leatherback nesting on Nicaragua’s shores. I am next visiting there in November, so you never know…!