Unprecedented hawksbill nesting activity in northwest Nicaragua

Estero Padre Ramos is recognised as a globally important site for the Critically Endangered hawksbill turtle. Located in northwest Nicaragua, it is a shallow marine estuary comprising lagoons, inlets, beaches and mangroves.

For more than five years, community leader Luis Manzanares has been working to protect sea turtles in the area.

Today, Luis coordinates community monitoring and protection activities as part of the ‘Proyecto Carey’ hawksbill turtle conservation project, which is supported by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO).

The project has now completed its second season – here Luis shares the results.

Substantial progress for hawksbill turtles in the Eastern Pacific

This year the field team built a hatchery to protect relocated turtle eggs, as well as an experimental hatchery to test the effects of different environmental conditions on hatching success.

Nightly beach patrols took place from May to October 2011 along three miles of beach and an exchange visit took place with our ‘sister’ hawksbill project at Bahia Jiquilisco in El Salvador.

We also supported 21 community members by providing incentives that reduce poaching and improve identification and relocation of hawksbill nests.

“This initiative is helping local people meet their daily subsistence needs, providing vital income to improve their diet, diversify their crops and support their families,” says Luis.

By the end of the 2011 nesting season, the project team had recorded 150 hawksbill nests, tagged 32 nesting females for future identification, and successfully released almost 11,500 hatchlings to the sea.

Over the two seasons of the project 90% of nests recorded have been successfully protected, a strong indicator of the ‘buy-in’ from local community members and stakeholders (in comparison, it is estimated that 100% of nests were illegally poached prior to 2010).

Despite these impressive accomplishments, ‘Proyecto Carey’ remains in its infancy and the study area faces serious environmental threats.

FFI is committed to supporting this successful project, with the long-term aim of increasing the population size of hawksbill turtles in the Eastern Pacific.

We are also working to cultivate local stewardship of hawksbills and other turtle species in along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua.

In Luis’ words, “The community is happy that Estero Padre Ramos is known worldwide for its number of hawksbill turtles and people now have hope that in future years their numbers will increase and our children will have the opportunity to know them.”

Elsewhere, the marine turtle nesting season continues…

Despite the 2011 hawksbill nesting season drawing to a close in October, our specialist turtle teams in Nicaragua, led by José Urteaga, Perla Torres and Gena Arbarca, are kept busy throughout the year.

Marcial Chàvez is a local community leader involved in monitoring olive ridley turtle arribadas in the Chacocente Wildlife Refuge, where FFI has been working for 10 years.

Over the past decade between 30,000 and 60,000 olive ridley nests have been recorded annually at this beach alone, resulting in many millions of olive ridley hatchlings returning to the sea (over 1.5 million in the 2010-11 season – this year’s data is still being collated!)

This season, Marcial and the rest of the team have recorded five arribada mass nesting events at Chacocente since July, each involving between 2,000 and 20,000 nesting females, alongside smaller-scale nesting activity.

Marcial is an active and founding member of local rural community tourism cooperative. He works closely with FFI to reduce the plundering of turtle eggs from the arribada beach and strengthen turtle-friendly economic alternatives through rural community tourism.

“As a local person, I have the right to live here and meet my needs, but the sea turtles also have a right to survive,” said Marcial. “I believe the way that these two things can be accomplished harmoniously is through community tourism.”

As for the majestic leatherback turtle – the original flagship species of FFI’s turtle conservation programme – FFI now supports conservation activities at three of the most important nesting sites for leatherbacks along Nicaragua’s pacific coast.

Since FFI’s pioneering leatherback conservation work began, we have recorded and protected over 500 leatherback nests at Chacocente, Isla Juan Venado and Salamina and have successfully reduced the number of nests lost to poaching.

Juan Manuel, is a community leader who became involved with FFI’s leatherback turtle conservation project at Chacocente.

“My hope is that in 20 years’ time we will witness the return of some of the leatherbacks I have seen hatch out in the nursery and be released into the sea over the last 10 years,” says Juan. “I will then feel satisfied to have contributed to the recovery of this species.”