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Riverine communities join forces to preserve threatened Amazon turtles

  • Residents of 32 communities in Juruti, western Pará state, organize to preserve species such as the Amazon turtle (Podocnemis expansa), tracajá (P. unifilis), pitiú (P. sextuberculata) and irapuca (P. erythrocephala).
  • Monitoring beaches during the spawning season to collect eggs and then take them to a protected hatchery are the main actions of riverside dwellers. The numbers are on the rise: Some communities have already protected 300 nests in a single season.
  • The Brazilian Amazon is a priority area for chelonian conservation, with 21 species described by scientists. Fourteen species live in Juruti, one of which is endemic.
  • Despite being banned by environmental legislation, consumption of turtle eggs and meat still seems to be part of local traditions, contributing to reduce the number of individuals; mining and dam construction projects also threat the survival of the species.

JURUTI, Pará state, Brazil — One of the little sand piles appears to be moving. Fábio Andrew Cunha opens the way with his hands, and a baby pitiú emerges from the nest. Measuring around 4 centimetrs (1.6 inches), the turtle passes its flipper over its right eye and then repeats the gesture on the left side. Its eyes must be cleared so it can see the new world. Seconds later, another baby turtle comes out.

Living in one of the world’s most biodiverse biomes for chelonians, residents of Juruti have seen the number of turtles and other species plummet over the past few generations. Stories told by their ancestors and their own observations about that drastic reduction led riverside dwellers from 32 communities in the municipality of Juruti, Pará, to organize independently and voluntarily to preserve species such as the Amazon turtle (Podocnemis expansa), tracajá (P. unifilis), pitiú (P. sextuberculata) and irapuca (P. erythrocephala).

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Their work consists of watching the beaches at night from September onward, when the spawning season begins and females become more vulnerable. Afterward, community members collect the eggs from each nest and take them to a nursery or hatchery — a fenced sand area where the eggs are protected until baby turtles are born. Then they are placed in tanks until their release, which in 2023 occurred in early March.

“Species are managing to increase their wild population in Amazon rivers as a result of basic community management work,” says Cunha, a chelonian expert from Juruti. “Today we have 21 species of turtles described in the Brazilian Amazon. In this area [Juruti], we have already managed to catalog 14 species, one of which is endemic. We consider Brazil a turtle hotspot, a priority area for the conservation of the group.”

Riverbank in the municipality of Juruti, Pará. Excessive heat and severe drought warmed the waters and lowered the level of Amazonian lakes and rivers, creating difficulties for turtles to lay their eggs. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Between turtles and stars

Former residents used to say there were more turtles in the rivers than stars in the sky. “In some rivers in the Amazon, navigation of large boats was impossible due to the concentration of females, especially during the spawning season, when they form large bales to go upstream and lay their eggs together on the beaches,” Cunha says.

However, the number of turtles has drastically decreased in the area. According to Cunha, a biologist with a PhD in aquatic ecology and conservation in the Amazon, in the 1970s and 1980s, Juruti became a hub for gathering turtle eggs and hunting adult females. As a traditional food item, eggs were even used to pay bills, and turtle meat was once considered the second main source of animal protein in the local diet, only after fish.

Tracajá eggs are relocated and watched over by riverside dwellers at the Lake Tucunaré hatchery. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.
Chelonian expert Fábio Andrew Cunha monitors the work of 32 communities in Juruti. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Currently, laws protecting wild fauna ban the consumption of turtle eggs and meat. But in Juruti, the story is different between August and September: “You can often smell the [roasting] shell when you walk through the streets. I’m talking about the reality of a single place, but this happens in almost all small towns in the Amazon,” Cunha says.

It is true that a significant portion of the population has already realized the importance of preserving turtles, but research shows that approximately 1.7 million of them were consumed in urban areas of Amazonas state in 2018.

In addition to illegal hunting, the turtles face other threats. “Large-scale mining projects implemented in the Amazon affect the landscape both in spawning sites and in shelter and feeding areas,” Cunha points out. In Juruti, bauxite extraction by mining company Alcoa since 2009 has resulted in unprecedented financial settlements over socioenvironmental damages.

Deforestation, oil exploration and river dams built to expand energy options also pose dangers. “There are several combined changes that ultimately reduce the numbers and population structure of both females and males.”

Based on the reports of their ancestors and observing the number of chelonians dwindling, community members were inspired by existing projects in the Amazon, such as the Quelônios da Amazônia Program and the Pé-de-Pincha Project, and organized independently and voluntarily to protect their surroundings.

A rare albino turtle born in the Caapiranga community. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Miri Warriors

“Our group is made up of young people. There is a 25-year-old guy who started following the work when he was 8,” says Marunei Guerreiro de Mesquita, leader of the project in the Miri community in the rural area of Juruti, which gathers 20 volunteers in the Miri Environmental Warriors Association. “I’m the old one; the others are young.”

Fifteen years ago, when they started the management work, the community members were able to relocate around 50 nests to the hatchery each season. Recently, they have relocated more than 270 nests per year.

The enclosure with the eggs collected is located in front of Mesquita’s house, on the banks of the floodplain lake that connects to the Amazon River. In this season, there are 225 nests, fewer than in previous years, probably due to the severe drought that hit the area, changing the water regime and leaving the headwaters of lakes and rivers extremely dry.

Marunei Guerreiro de Mesquita leads 20 volunteers in their work to protect turtles in the Miri community. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.
The Brazilian Amazon is a “turtle hotspot,” with 21 species of chelonians described by science. Juruti has 14 species, one of which is endemic. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Since the beginning of the project, the numbers have risen year after year. Not without difficulties, though. “Because of the work I do, I got in trouble with people in the community, with the [municipal environment] department, with community leaders. But this work won’t pay my bills,” Mesquita says.

Despite the challenges faced to obtain resources to keep up the work, Mesquita feels rewarded by the increase in the number of chelonians in the area, by the fact that many people admire the project, and by the new generations of volunteers joining it.

“We learn a lot and we’ll carry this forward to the generation of our children, our grandchildren,” says 20-year-old Jelso Santarém, who started working on the project when he was 13.

The tank is located in Mesquita’s backyard, where newborn turtles live for a few months. Last November, the tank was already home to a sizable number of them.

Cunha recently arrived from Bolivia, where he participated in a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assess the status of Amazonian chelonians. He holds a baby pitiú in his hand, one of his favorite species and one of the most threatened. “It’s the most beautiful in the world; it seems to be asking us for a hug.”

In the nursery, more pitiú hatchlings are born. Two-year-old Henry Mesquita Santarém watches the event. “Put it in the box,” the boy says, referring to the plastic foam containers. Henry goes up the hill in the backyard with his grandfather Mesquita, helping as much as he can to carry the foam box to the breeding tank.

Ednaldo Lima de Sousa, project coordinator at Lake Capiranga, carries baby turtles. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.
Young tracajá turtles (brown) and a pitiú (gray). The pitiú is predators’ favorite. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Keep an eye on the turtles but watch for predators

“The pitiú is predators’ favorite species,” says Ednaldo Lima de Sousa, head of the project that has been operating in the Caapiranga community since 2005. “If we don’t take care of these animals that are here, we won’t be seeing any later.”

In addition to doing turtle management, many communities also manage fish. “We have a fishing agreement. Not everyone is allowed; we try to preserve it for the community. This is our agreement,” Sousa explains.

In the Caapiranga community, the increase in the number of turtles is visible and there has already been a season with 300 protected nests. “The little animals started to get close to the area where they are already preserved,” says Edir Lima de Sousa, who works with his brother Ednaldo and eight other community members.

Inside the nursery, which this year has almost a hundred nests with a privileged view of Lake Capiranga, baby tracajás emerge from the sand. Sousa helps them by clearing space at the nest’s exit, but not everything goes as planned. Few hatchlings come out; some eggs are partially or completely cooked inside the nest and some have failed to develop and hatch.

“We’d been having very positive results, but the severe drought causes general disturbance,” Cunha says.

Eggs cooked and baby turtles killed by high temperatures. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

With the sand at 43o Celsius (109.4o Fahrenheit), reports of female turtles dead on riverbanks have also been common. “They were going upstream to lay their eggs and couldn’t do it, either because of the distance or the very high temperature.”

Another current concern is that temperature has an influence on sex determination of several species of river turtles. “It may be that high temperatures produce more females than the normal balance for the population. We need balance between males and females, so we are talking about a feminization process.”

On a night with a full moon and stars hidden by smoke from fires, Mongabay follows the forays of the little motorboat known as rabeta into the lake in search of adult females — without success.

“In a perfect scenario, we’d now be measuring, photographing and marking around 50, 60 females,” Cunha says. “We put the nets in the water and didn’t catch any animals. The reason is not known yet. I believe that more severe drought and illegal capture have driven females away or led them to choose other locations.”

Nests protected in a hatchery at Lake Caapiranga. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Mirror of nature

Domingos Pereira Campos carries the foam container in his arms, as if it were a child. Inside are 29 tracajá eggs that he just collected from a nest on the banks of Lake Tucunaré. The eggs will be relocated and monitored in the nursery a few meters away. “You have to take them to the pit carefully so as not to shake them,” he warns.

Entering the hatchery’s fence, Campos, who has worked with the project since its beginning in 2012, chooses a spot and digs a hole with a more pronounced, belly-shaped curve on one side.

“That’s nature’s way. We try to do it more or less like nature, but it’s not the same,” he shows. “We take them out and then put them back in the other pit. The last one to come out goes to the bottom first.”

“If you can observe how carefully the female builds the nest … it’s very moving. It’s a chamber that keeps the temperature,” Cunha says.

Indeed, not everything can be copied as nature created it. “Of course, with the displacement of eggs from their natural environment to the hatchery, there is some loss because we can’t literally choose the same microclimate as in nature. So a small percentage is expected to fail,” he explains.

The increase in the number of turtles in Juruti is directly linked to the work of riverside dwellers, who watch the beaches during the spawning season, collect the eggs and care for newborn chelonians.

Late afternoon in the Miri community. Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Every interference has its consequences — not only the change of nest location but also the months in which the young turtles grow in the tanks until they are released, which can compromise their ability to escape predators, their swimming agility and their aptitude to look for their own food.

Experts suggest that some of the young turtles be taken to the water immediately after birth to encourage adult females to return to the spawning site.

“With the discovery of vocalization, we found out that there is parental care between females and their offspring,” Cunha reports. Studies have shown that turtle embryos emit sounds, alerting females of their birth. If the females are waiting for it and do not receive any offspring, they may consider the place unsafe for laying eggs in the future.

Even though the careful protection by community members is not exactly a mirror of nature, the real positive impact of conservation work on rural communities can be seen in Juruti, with the species’ population growth and the increase in the number of nests.

On a hot November afternoon, walking along the banks of Lake Tucunaré, Fábio Cunha finds another nest. This will be the 183rd to be taken into the hatchery.

“We started this in 2012, and in 2013, we already managed to obtain six nests and 212 baby turtles,” says Jorge Simões, head of the project at Lake Tucunaré. “Residents became more and more supportive, and now it’s a huge success. Last year, we released 4,150 turtles. So, each year that passes, it evolves more.”

Banner image: Tracajás protected by riverside dwellers in the Tucunaré community, municipality of Juruti (PA). Image by Julia Lemos Lima/Mongabay.

Cunha, F. A., Sampaio, I., Carneiro, J., & Vogt, R. C. (2021). A new species of Amazon freshwater toad-headed turtle in the genus Mesoclemmys (Testudines: Pleurodira: Chelidae) from Brazil. Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 20(2). doi:10.2744/ccb-1448.1

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Aug. 21, 2023.

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