Turtle tales – 10 years of conservation work in Nicaragua

Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) José Urteaga, Programme Manager for Nicaragua, has been there from day one. Here José shares some very personal thoughts on how he learnt that integrating local people and their perspectives are essential to successful conservation.

“You feel you are completely isolated, walking along this beach. It is midnight, the sky is inky black and full of twinkling stars. After walking several kilometres you stop to rest, sitting on the sand. In front of you is a vast ocean, behind you a dense forest. The ocean plays a perfect soundtrack for your thoughts; all kind of things go through your mind: your life, your beloveds, your past and future. You ponder the greatness of the mass of water in front of you. What does it hide? Your mind develops a collage of images from your knowledge and imagination. Suddenly, a huge creature emerges from the waves, crawling up in to the beach towards you. Instinctively you stand up and move aside. This animal is big, really big, strong but peaceful, primitive, amazing. You feel like you’ve travelled back to the dinosaur era.

It is a leatherback turtle nesting in the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, in a pristine place called Chacocente. You are witnessing a biological ritual 100 million years old. You feel a special connection with this creature and, through her, to the ocean and its secrets you were imagining few minutes ago. This is a magical moment, wonderful, unforgettable…

You are so focused on the turtle that you do not realise a man is now next to you. He has a bag and a machete in hand. He claims the turtle, he collects the eggs, and he leaves. The turtle stays and continues her, now useless, nesting ritual. The magic moment is broken. You know this is not right; leatherback turtles are rapidly disappearing from the earth and these eggs represented hope for this majestic creature. Now there is nothing there. This could be the last leatherback you ever see. This is a sad story, with a bad guy – the poacher, with a unique creature – the sea turtle, and with a single witness: You.

But there is another way to tell this story. This time we start in Aguas Calientes community, near Chacocente. Juan Manuel is 30 years old. He is married to Maria and they have three beautiful children. They live in a small house, with a dirt floor, wooden walls and a roof of patchwork plastic, tiles and zinc… Juan wants to be a farmer, but the soil quality here is not good. This year the rains have been scarce and his crops (beans and corn) are not enough to feed his family. In Juan’s community, you are lucky if you eat twice a day, lucky if you can send your precious children to school, or to the doctor. These days things are not going well and Juan’s children are hungry. What can he do? Juan Manuel decides to go to the beach, to take a chance. Sea turtle eggs can solve his day and feed his family if he is lucky, so he walks to the beach to collect eggs.

You know the rest of the story but now the poacher has a name. He is a father, is human, and not a bad guy after all.

This is the context in which Fauna & Flora International works every day. But is it possible to take both stories to a happy ending?

Ten years ago, the Nicaraguan government asked FFI to help national efforts to protect sea turtles.  At the same time, a committed and passionate philanthropist decided she wanted to help sea turtles, and provided FFI with seed funding to setup a turtle conservation project in Nicaragua. I was recruited by FFI to start this work in Chacocente. I was a young biologist (although this does not mean I am old now!) eager to save turtles, to protect their nesting beaches and to swim with them in the ocean. With FFI I learned to work with local people and to see both sides of the story. Conservation is about science, but is also about livelihoods, education and culture. It is about collaboration, networking, sharing, and it is also about commitments, friendship and even love.

Over the last ten years we have protected over 90% of leatherback nests laid on Chacocente’s beaches. Our sea turtle programme has grown and now we work at five nesting beaches, protecting three species of sea turtle along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, collaborating with a variety of local organisations and individuals. Ten years seem to me a long time, but for leatherbacks this is just a third of the time that it takes a hatchling to reach adulthood.

Juan Manuel turned from a poacher to leading the community beach protection and hatchery team in Chacocente. Now we are good friends. From time to time we walk the beach together, we wait for a leatherback, and we still have hope.”