Communities in northwestern Nicaragua are rallying to save the critically endangered hawksbill turtle.
In the northwest corner of Nicaragua, there is a large estuary called Padre Ramos. This beautiful mangrove swamp is an important transition zone between the land and the sea, a place where the water is calm and fluctuates with the tide. Padre Ramos has been a nature reserve since 1983 and is important because it is one of only two known nesting areas (of significant size) for the critically endangered Eastern Pacific hawksbill sea turtle.
Sea turtles are in trouble all around the world, and Nicaragua, whose beaches have long been crucial nesting grounds, has seen a sharp decline in numbers over recent decades. Of the four species that come to Nicaragua to lay their eggs, leatherbacks and hawksbills are classified as critically endangered, greens are endangered, and olive ridleys are vulnerable (via WWF).
The hawksbills of Padre Ramos face the same dangers that are hurting sea turtles worldwide. Many Nicaraguans eat turtle eggs (they’re even sold as snacks at sporting events), chop down the mangrove swamps for firewood, and pollute the water with illegal shrimp farms. Turtles are caught in fishing nets by accident or poached for their meat, shell, and skin. Climate change is altering sand temperatures, affecting the sex of hatchlings. Then there is the insidious scourge of plastic pollution everywhere that, tragically, resembles the jellyfish turtles love to eat, resulting in suffocation rather than nourishment.
Residents of Jiquilillo and Punto Venecia, villages near the Padre Ramos estuary, have taken action to protect the hawksbills. They have built an outdoor hatchery where eggs can be kept safely until they hatch. Protected with netting from birds, sun, wind, waves, and poachers by a full-time guard, the baby turtles stand a better chance of survival than if left on the beach. TreeHugger sat down with Andy Evans, a local hotel-owner, to learn more about this wonderful project.
The hatchery’s approach is innovative, offering to pay poachers at market value for any eggs they collect. These eggs, along with those collected by volunteers and employees who scour the beach at nighttime, are then buried in bags of black volcanic sand, where they ‘bake’ for approximately 45 days. Upon hatching, the baby sea turtles are placed in buckets of salt water and carried to the shore for release.
This simple intervention increases the estimated survival rate at one year of age from one in 1,000 to three.
The hatchery is run by Gerry Caceres, chairman of the Padre Ramos Natural Reserve and president of the Environmental Protection Committee for northern Nicaragua, along with a committee and a single employee who stays on site for the whole turtle hatching season (November to April). The hatchery receives many visitors and volunteers throughout the season.
The hatchery is currently fundraising to cover the costs of (hopefully) tending 30,000 baby turtles in the 2017 season, of which only 100 will likely survive. It may not seem like much, but when you consider that the mere rumor of two leatherback turtles nesting at another nearby sea turtle rescue operation was considered cause for great celebration, it puts into perspective what a significant contribution this is. So far the hatchery has released 5,340 turtles this season and, unless it receives more funding, will aim for a total of 12,000. Sadly, as Evans stated, everything is driven by how much money is raised.
You can donate to the hatchery’s fundraising page, or go visit if you ever find yourself in northwestern Nicaragua. The hatchery welcomes visitors who want to help collect eggs at nighttime or release them into the ocean, charging a small fee to help keep the operation running. Local hotels, such as Brisas del Mar and Monty’s Beach Lodge (both owned by Gerry Caceres with respective partners Andy Evans and Donald Montgomery), encourage and facilitate this form of eco-tourism.
If you love sea turtles and want to make a difference, consider sponsoring a nest for US $50 (see the 'Volunteer' section of the Brisas del Mar website for more info).