Hawksbill Turtle

Paso Pacífico, a non-profit organization focusing on the Pacific slope of Central America, is helping endangered Hawksbill Turtles in Nicaragua with a compensation-based conservation program based on incentive payments for local people.

The financial rewards to locals in exchange for protecting endangered sea turtle nests are making a difference: Rangers have reported that egg poaching is on the decline. And Paso Pacífico plans are to make this program sustainable.

As one of the most critically endangered marine sea turtles, little is known about the current population of Hawksbill Turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata ). With 100 percent of their eggs being harvested by local people and sold to poachers, few turtles had the opportunity to reach adulthood – putting this species is at significant risk.

The culture of turtle eggs of food and the sea turtle egg trade in Nicaragua is compounded by the local people supplementing meager incomes by stealing sea turtle eggs from their nests. The sea turtle eggs end up being sold throughout Nicaragua at restaurants and markets:

At unprotected beaches, nearly 100 percent of nests located are lost. Local people and fishermen track the beaches at night for nesting turtles, and upon finding a nest they immediately harvest all eggs.

Protecting sea turtle eggs: Getting it right from the start

Rick Smith, member of Paso Pacífico’s Board of Directors and a retired 30-year veteran of the National Parks Service, has been involved in training Paso Pacífico’s community-based rangers who protect turtle nests from poaching by patrolling the beaches. He believes that starting with a clear vision has been a key factor in the program’s positive impact :

We started right from the beginning—what does a ranger look like, what do they do, how do they deal with people who don’t share Paso Pacífico’s conservation goals, how to work together, how to respond to supervision, etc. It was slow going during the first session last year, but I was somewhat encouraged by the fact that members of the Nicaraguan Army—the army patrols some of the beaches managed by the government—and several government rangers from the nearby wildlife refuge, La Flor, where turtle nesting occurs, also attended the training. The second training session that I did a couple weeks ago was a real eye-opener. The rangers had improved a lot in self-confidence and their ability to communicate. All were very enthusiastic about what they were doing.

Paso Pacífico’s program makes protecting sea turtle nests more rewarding than raiding them.

The incentive payments are given for protecting the sea turtle nests from the time the eggs are laid, and also when hatched eggs are verified by Paso Pacifico Rangers and a community committee:

First, individuals receive a nominal payment upon committing to protect a nest ($10 – $20/nest).

Then, when turtle eggs are successfully hatched and verified by Paso Pacífico rangers and a community committee, both the ‘protector’ and the community fund receive a second and larger payment of between ten and thirty cents per hatchling.

The payment amount varies by species with the more endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles receiving the highest payment amounts.

The community fund is accumulated throughout the year and at the end of the year, the community leadership decides how to use the money

Paso Pacífico rangers also benefit by the performance-based programs: For every nest that they successfully monitor, they receive a bonus payment. The ranger who has protected the most nests throughout the year receives an additional bonus payment.

As an additional income-generating activity, guided sea kayak trips for visitors are provided by community guides selected by Pasa Pacifico.

Protecting endangered sea turtles in the future

Protecting endangered sea turtles in partnership with local communities is the long-term goal of the Paso Pacífico sea turtle conservation program. The program plans to meet this goal by:

  1. Reducing conflict between communities and natural resource managers near the La Flor Wildlife Refuge
  2. Effectively decreasing poaching and increasing protection for solitary nesting sea turtles
  3. Promoting alternative sources of income that are tied to conservation for the benefit of local people

Could this model be adapted for other conservation groups?

I am troubled by the fact a significant amount of poaching is done by the local people who live near in or near the habitats of endangered species. Widespread rural poverty in protected areas leave few alternatives for people take care of their families. Thus, killing an endangered animal in exchange for money is seen as simply a way to survive. And for repeat offenders, it becomes a somewhat reliable way to make a living. (Until the animals are completely wiped out.)

An interesting element of the Paso Pacifico’s program is the creation of jobs at varying levels: Not only are the rangers compensated for their patrol efforts, nests can be protected by individuals. Specifically, the verification of hatchlings adds an accountability element that appears to be missing in other anti-poaching programs.

There is certainly room for improvement in the current state of endangered species management. The IUCN recently reported that:

869 species are Extinct or Extinct the Wild and this figure rises to 1,159 if the 290 Critically Endangered species tagged as Possibly Extinct are included. Overall, a minimum of 16,928 species are threatened with extinction.

Perhaps it is time to consider a new approach to local conservation programs – before it’s too late.

Image source: istock.com