09 December 2010

My Untimely Arrival at Chacocente Wildlife Refuge, Nicaragua

The next stop on my "Tour of Nicaraguan Turtle Beaches" with FFI's Jose Urteaga is Refugio de Vida Silvestre Rio Escalante Chacocente, Chacocente for short. Chacocente is one of only two beaches on Nicaragua's Pacific coast where the Olive ridley sea turtle nests "in mass". This phenomenon, also known as an "arribada" which means "the arrival", only occurs on a small number of beaches in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans - a handful occurring in Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and a few in India. Elsewhere in the world, the Olive Ridley is a solitary nester like other sea turtle species.

An Olive ridley track

Much to my dismay an arribada occurred just a few days before my arrival here, with approximately 10,000 Olive ridley nests being deposited over the course of just a few days on this very beach that I am walking on. In my time working with sea turtles I have yet to witness an Olive ridley arribada but imagine it would leave me without words.  Today, only a few scattered tracks remain on the beach.

The Olive ridley is the only turtle to put on such a spectacular nesting display which occurs approximately every 28 days during the nesting season. During these few days, tens of thousands of turtles may converge on a single stretch of beach, competing for prime beachfront realty, and inadvertently digging up each others nests in the process of laying their own. This "mass nesting" strategy is thought to overwhelm predators, ensuring the survival of some of the young, although the arribada strategy is still somewhat a mystery to scientists.

The beach here at Chacocente is really spectacular....and really hot today. I'm walking this scenic stretch of beach with a University student from Managua that is here to do her thesis research.  She's looking at the hatch success rate of nests in relation to the density of nests on the beach. Olive ridley arribada beaches, with their high density of nests, naturally have lower hatching success rates than other beaches where turtles are solitary nesters and nests are spaced out along the beach.  As we collect sand temperatures from the study sites, armed military guards are walking down the beach on patrol. 

The beaches here are part of a wildlife reserve, managed by MARENA - the Nicaraguan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, and are patrolled by the Nicaraguan military. Jose and Fauna & Flora International work in collaboration with these entities to manage the sea turtle program here, protecting the turtle eggs from poachers.  Although the Olive ridley is the most abundant of sea turtles worldwide, their numbers have been in decline due to poaching and other threats like entanglement in fishing gear.

This part of Nicaragua also holds one of the largest tracts of dry forest in the country.  FFI is also working with the government and local communities here to manage and preserve this important habitat and develop alternative livelihoods for locals including reforestation projects and providing services to visitors.

A troop of Howler monkeys laze in the trees within the Refuge.
The 10,000 Olive ridley nests that were deposited here just prior to my visit are due to hatch in January.  Although I missed the last arribada by just a few days, perhaps my next visit will coincide with the hatching and mass exodus of thousands of tiny little hatchlings making their way to the sea.  I can hope at least, that the timing of my arrival will be better next time around.

For more information about Fauna & Flora International's work in Nicaragua click here.

For information on how to contribute your time to a sea turtle conservation project, see our Volunteer page.

Paula von Weller
Research Associate
SEE Turtles

04 December 2010

Critically Endangered Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Finds Refuge in Small Fishing Community

Reserva Natural Estero Padre Ramos lies on the Northern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, near the border of Honduras. This area was recently discovered to be an important nesting area for the critically endangered Eastern Pacific Hawksbill, a population teetering on the edge of extinction. The only other known Hawksbill nesting area of this magnitude in the entire Eastern Pacific is to the north, in the nearby country of El Salvador.

This year Marine Biologist and my guide for the next couple of days, FFI's Jose Urteaga, began collaborating with the local community of fishermen here in Padre Ramos to begin a nest protection program for the Hawksbill. Jose is Fauna & Flora International's Nicaragua Program Manager and was named one of National Geographic's 2010 Emerging Explorers for his sea turtle conservation work in Nicaragua.

Padre Ramos, a small remote fishing community has, up to this point, collected the Hawksbill eggs for sale and consumption. Now the locals, once poachers, have become conservationists, protecting the nests and hoping to draw visitors to see this critically important area while improving the livelihoods of the locals and protecting their natural resources. The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill population is so low that scientists aren't even sure how many remain. The Hawksbill has historically, and continues to be, hunted for its beautiful shell used to make jewelry and other ornaments. Pressure from poaching has only accelerated their decline.

My journey to Padre Ramos begins in the bustling capital city of Managua and takes me through small towns framed by lush green and dotted with banana and sugar cane plantations, with towering volcanoes in the distance. The area that we are headed to sits on the edge of a mangrove system. Here the Hawksbill travels inland, nesting on small estuary islands. The only other place Hawksbills are known to do this is in El Salvador. Elsewhere, they nest on ocean beaches like other sea turtle species.

As we board a small boat to explore the area, I am delighted by the natural beauty of this place - with the ocean to my left, the mangroves before me, and the towering volcano to my right that is actively smoking. We visit the two main nesting islands here. As I walk the beaches I imagine the Hawksbill, under the cover of darkness, hauling herself up high onto the beach and into the vegetation to lay her precious clutch of pearl-shaped eggs. This time of year though only remnants remain on the beach of her presence, empty eggshells that once held her tiny offspring.

Isla La Tigra - A Hawksbill
nesting beach

During the nesting season locals are monitoring and tagging the nesting females that come here to lay eggs and managing a hatchery where the eggs are guarded around the clock. During the first season of the project (2010), 280 nests were protected, an impressive number for a Hawksbill beach that was relatively unknown to researchers just a year ago, and for such an endangered population.

We return to the town where I am warmly greeted by the locals who welcome me and are interested in my visit to Padre Ramos. They are hopeful that their new lives as conservationists will bring good things to this small community that once not long ago, exploited the turtles unsustainably. Feeling inspired by their enthusiasm, I hope to return to Padre Ramos in June, during the peak of the nesting season, to volunteer my time and get my hands sandy.

For information about volunteering on a sea turtle conservation project, please see our website for details.

For more information about the status of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill see ICAPO -the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative website.

Paula von Weller
Research Associate
SEE Turtles