Ribeirinhos unite to preserve turtles in the Amazon

  • Watching the beaches during the spawning period and collecting the eggs, transporting them to a protected hatchery, are the main actions of the riverside dwellers. The numbers are increasing: there are communities that have already protected 300 nests in a single spawning period.
  • The Brazilian Amazon is a priority area for chelonian conservation, with 21 species described by science. Juruti has 14 species, one of which is endemic.
  • Despite being prohibited by environmental legislation, the consumption of turtle eggs and meat still appears to be part of local traditions, contributing to the reduction of individuals; Mining projects and dam construction also pose a threat to the survival of species.

One of the sand piles appears to be moving. Fábio opens the way with his hands and a baby pitiú emerges from the nest. At around 4 centimeters, the chelon passes its fin over its right eye and then repeats the gesture on the left side. You need to clear your eyes to see the new world. Seconds later, another cub emerges.

In one of the most biodiverse biomes for chelonians in the world, residents of Juruti have seen the abundance of turtles and other species plummet over the last few generations. Reports from ancestors and their own observations about the drastic reduction led riverside communities from 32 communities in the municipality of Juruti, in Pará, to organize themselves, independently and voluntarily, to preserve species such as the Amazon turtle.

The work consists of watching the beaches at night from September onwards, when the spawning period begins and the females become more vulnerable. Afterwards, community members collect the eggs from each nest, transporting them to a nursery or hatchery — a fenced area in the sand, where the eggs are protected until the chicks are born, when they are placed in tanks until their release, which occurred last year in early March.

“If species today are managing to increase the wild population in Amazon rivers, it is thanks to basic community management work”, says Fábio Andrew Cunha, a chelonian specialist from Juruti. “Today we have 21 species of chelonians described in the Brazilian Amazon. In this region [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”.

Between turtles and stars

Former residents said 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 this period of laying when they form large schools to rise and form trays, which is joint spawning on the beaches”, says Fábio .

However, the number of turtles has drastically decreased in the region. According to Fábio, biologist and doctor in Aquatic Ecology and Conservation in the Amazon, in the 1970s and 80s Juruti became a center for collecting eggs and hunting adult females. Traditional in food, eggs were even used to pay bank bills and turtle meat was once considered the second main source of animal protein in the local diet, behind only fish.

Currently, laws that protect wild fauna prohibit the consumption of both eggs and chelonians, but between August and September the Jurutiense air tells a different story: “It is very common for you to smell the shell [roasting] when you walk through the streets of city. I'm talking about the reality of a single municipality, but this happens in almost all small towns in the interior of the Amazon”, says Fábio.

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

In addition to illegal hunting, chelonians suffer other types of threats. “When there are large mining projects being implemented in the Amazon, this affects the landscape both from the point of view of the spawning site and the shelter and feeding area”, points out Fábio. In Juruti, the extraction of bauxite carried out by the mining company Alcoa since 2009 generated unprecedented financial settlements for socio-environmental damages.

Deforestation, oil exploration and the installation of dams on rivers to expand the energy matrix represent other dangers. “There are several changes acting together that, ultimately, reduce the number and population structure, both of females and males.”

Based on reports from ancestors, and observing the number of chelonians dwindling, community members were inspired by projects that already existed in the Amazon, such as the Amazonian Chelonian Project and the Pé-de-Pincha Project , and organized themselves, independently and voluntarily. , to protect your surroundings.

Miri Warriors

“Our group is made up of young people. There is a 25-year-old boy who started following the work when he was 8”, says Marunei Guerreiro de Mesquita, leader of the project in the Miri community, rural area of ​​Juruti, which brings together 20 volunteers in the Miri Environmental Warriors Association (Agam). “I am old and the rest are young.”

15 years ago, when they started managing it, the community managed to relocate around 50 nests to the hatchery each season. In recent years, they have reached more than 270.

In front of Marunei's house, on the banks of the floodplain lake that joins the Amazon River, is the enclosure that houses the collected eggs. This season there are 225 nests, a lower number than in previous years — probably due to the severe drought that hit the region , changing the water regime and leaving the headwaters of lakes and rivers extremely dry.

Since the beginning of the project, the numbers have only grown every year. Not without difficulties. “I created a problem with the community, I created a problem with the [Municipal Environment] Secretariat, I created a problem with the community coordinator because of the work I do. But this work I do isn’t giving me sugar or coffee”, says Marunei.

Despite the challenges in obtaining resources to move forward, Marunei feels rewarded by the increase in chelonians in the region, by the admiration that many feel for the project, and by the new generations who join in volunteering.

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

The tank is located in Marunei's backyard, where the newborn chelonians live for a few months. Last November, the tank was already home to a small crowd of chelonians.

Fábio, recently arrived from Bolivia, where he participated in a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assess the threat status of Amazonian chelonians, holds a baby pitiú in his hand, one of his favorite species and one of the most threatened: “she is the most beautiful in the world, it seems like she asks you for a hug”.

In the nursery, more pitiú puppies are born. Henry Mesquita Santarém, 2 years old, follows the event. “Put it in the box”, says the boy, referring to the Styrofoam. Henry goes up the hill in the backyard with his grandfather Marunei, helping as much as he can to carry the Styrofoam to the breeding tank.

One eye on the fish, the other on the chelon

“The pitiú is the species most sought after by predators”, says Ednaldo Lima de Sousa, coordinator of the project that has been operating since 2005 in the Capiranga community. “If we don’t take care of these animals that are here, later on we won’t see them again.”

In addition to managing chelonians, many communities also care for fish. “We have a fishing agreement. It's not about giving freedom to anyone; we try to preserve it for the community. This is our agreement”, explains Ednaldo.

In the Capiranga community, the increase in chelonians is noted and there has already been a harvest with 300 protected nests. “The animals started to arrive more towards the band where it is already preserved”, says Edir Lima de Sousa, who works together with his brother Ednaldo and eight other riverside dwellers.

Inside the nursery, which this year houses almost a hundred nests with a privileged view of Lake Capiranga, baby tracajá emerge on the sand. Ednaldo helps, clearing space at the exit from the nest, but not everything goes as planned. Few chicks hatch, some eggs are partially or completely cooked inside the nest, and some chicks have failed to develop and hatch.

“We had a very positive result, but the very intense period of drought disrupts the context in general”, says Fábio.

With the sand temperature measuring 43 degrees Celsius, reports of dead females on riverbanks have also been common. “They were going to go up to do posture and couldn’t do it, either because of the distance or because of the very high temperature.”

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

On a night with a full moon and stars made invisible by the smoke from the fires, report followed the forays of the rabeta into the lake in search of adult females: without success.

“In a perfect scenario, at this moment we would be measuring, photographing and marking around 50, 60 females”, says Fábio. “We put the nets in the water and we were unable to capture any animals. The reason is not yet known. I believe that the intensification of the drought and illegal capture have driven away or led the females to choose other locations.”

Mirror of nature

Domingos carries the Styrofoam 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, meters away. “To take it to the grave, you have to take it carefully so as not to shake it,” he warns.

Entering the fence of the hatchery, Domingos Pereira Campos, who has participated in the project since its beginning in 2012, chooses a spot and digs a hole with a more pronounced curve on one side, as if it were a belly.

“That’s how nature does it. We do more or less like her, but it’s not the same,” she shows. “The way we take it out, we put it back in the other pit. The one who came out last goes to the bottom first.”

“If you can observe the care that the female takes to build the nest… it is very exciting. It’s a chamber that can maintain the temperature”, says Fábio.

Indeed, not everything can be copied in the same way as it is created in nature. “Of course, with the movement of eggs from the natural environment to the incubator, there is a loss, because we cannot literally choose the same microclimate as in nature. So it is expected that a minimum percentage will be unfeasible”, explains Fábio.

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

Every interference has its effects. Not only the change of nest location, but also the months in which the chicks grow in the tanks until release generate impacts, which can compromise their ability to escape predators, their swimming agility and their ability to look for their own food.

Experts suggest that a portion of the young be directed to the water immediately after birth to encourage adult females to return to the spawning site.

“With the discovery of vocalization, it was discovered that there is parental care between females and their offspring”, reports Fábio. Studies have shown that puppies emit sounds as embryos, alerting females of their birth. If females are waiting for birth and do not receive any offspring, they may consider the place unsafe for future spawning.

Even though the dedicated protection of community members is not exactly a mirror of nature, it is possible to perceive within the municipality the real positive impact of conservation actions on rural communities, with the population growth of species and the increase in the number of nests.

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

“When we started in 2012, we managed to obtain six nests and 212 chicks in 2013”, says Jorge Simões, project coordinator at Tucunaré. “Residents became more and more supportive and today it is a huge success. Last year, we released 4,150 cubs. So, each year that passes it evolves more.”

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