Teeming with Turtles

Protecting the largest known population of the Giant South American River Turtle

by Germán Forero-Medina, Camila Ferrara, Enrique Domic-Rivadeneira, and Guido Miranda

Reaching Ecovale’s field station is quite a journey. Coming from Brazil the closest airport is in the city of Cacoal, in the state of Rondônia. From there, we need to make a four-hour drive to reach the small town of Sao Francisco do Guaporé and board a boat for an hour-long ride along the Guaporé River, as it is known on the Brazilian side (in Bolivia it is known as the Iténez). Reaching the site from Bolivia is an even harder task. From Trinidad, the capital of the Department of Beni, it’s a 12- hour trip by dirt road to the community of Buena Vista, on the banks of the Iténez River, plus another two and a half hours by boat.

We are visiting Ecovale, our local Brazilian NGO partner, to support their ongoing efforts to protect nesting beaches and female Giant South American River Turtles (Podocnemis expansa) near the Bolivia-Brazil border, in the heart of the Amazon. The work of Ecovale is led by Zeca Lula, a driven and passionate man who has been dedicated to this job for more than two decades. In 1999, Lula started an NGO with some partners with the purpose of protecting the Giant South American River Turtle and its habitats. In 2003, he was hired by the Rondônia State Secretary of Environmental Development to work exclusively on turtle protection. Since then, he spends part of the year at the field station by the Guaporé River, where he coordinates a team to protect the nesting turtles that begin to emerge on beaches in July as the river dries.

On the Bolivian side of the river, protection for the turtles and their nesting areas is less evident; no guards or rangers actively patrol the area due to a lack of resources. Furthermore, in the past, the local community was more involved in the turtle’s protection. Sadly, nowadays, almost no one from the Bolivian side is actively involved in turtle conservation. In the past it was teacher Lola Salvatierra from the nearby settlement of Versalles who led campaigns for protecting the species and to ensure a source of protein for future generations. For peoples of the Orinoco Basin and Amazonia, Giant South American River Turtles have for thousands of years been an important source of food. “By caring for turtles we protect all species—fish, plants, even our forests and our territory. Our illusion was that if we took care of them, in two or three years there would be enough turtles for our children to eat,” said professor Lola while we visited her house to hear about the turtle and the work on the Bolivian side of the river.

Giant South American River Turtles vie for optimal nesting sites
Space is limited as thousands of Giant South American River Turtles vie for optimal nesting sites.

While these efforts have been led by local leaders like Zeca Lula and teacher Lola, in recent years they have both struggled to sustain the activities. They have received little help from governmental institutions, and limited funding has caused protection to be reduced or even absent in some years. In 2019, we (a Wildlife Conservation Society/Turtle Survival Alliance team) began supporting this initiative to strengthen conservation teams on both sides of the border. Then, beginning in early 2020, COVID-19 partially para­lyzed human travel and interaction for the better part of two years. Now we are resuming active involvement, visiting Lula at Ecovale´s field camp to discuss the project, support conservation actions, and to begin developing a standard­ized method to estimate the population of nesting females in the Guaporé/Itenez River. To do this we are using drones, thermal cameras, and other technologies like Artificial In­telligence.

The importance of this site was clear to the turtle con­servation and academic community after a Turtle Conser­vation Fund supported workshop we conducted in 2014, where we brought together conservationists working with Giant South American River Turtles in six countries. We also gathered information on the number of nesting fe­males at each site to understand the abundance and trends of the species across the Amazon and Orinoco basins. The results revealed the Guaporé/Itenez population is the larg­est known of the species. Rough estimates at the time in­dicated that more than 30,000 females nested in the area, but recent data suggests this number could be higher than 70,000. Estimating the number of nesting females in an ac­curate way is essential to understand the magnitude of this incredible population and to develop standardized methods to monitor its trends across time. That is why this year, as a team from WCS Bolivia, WCS Brazil, and Turtle Survival Alliance, we are here to work with Zeca Lula and his team.

We arrived with Zeca at the camp at night and the Boliv­ian team was already there waiting for us. After a beer to quench our thirst, we planned the next day’s work and lo­gistics. We would spend our nights on the beaches, count­ing turtles through multiple methods, including drones (thermal camera), visual counting, and mark recapture by painting turtle´s carapaces.

The following morning, we left the camp and arrived at the nesting beaches at 4:00 AM. What we saw is difficult to describe. The whole beach, which is roughly the size of ten soccer fields, was completely covered by nesting turtles. The heart of the nesting area was darker than the night, we couldn’t see the sand, and we could hear excavating sounds and shells bumping into each other as turtles looked for a place to nest. This is what explorer Alexander von Hum­boldt described in his early narratives of the Amazon and Orinoco. This is what mass nesting looked like centuries ago, and can only be seen in a few places today. If people are amazed by incredible animal gatherings like the great Serengeti Wildebeest migration, overwintering Monarch butterflies in south-central Mexico, or Mobula Ray migra­tion in the Sea of Cortez, this nesting of the Giant South American River Turtle is one of those incredible wonders of nature, perhaps the largest gathering of river turtles in the world.

Drones are one of the tools used to estimate the size of the region’s Giant South American River Turtle population by recording aerial imagery of nesting females.
Drones are one of the tools used to estimate the size of the region’s Giant South American River Turtle population by recording aerial imagery of nesting females.

For ten days, we flew drones, worked hand-in-hand with Zeca, and discussed the needs of the project from both sides of the border. The drone technology seems promising and we were able to make some initial counts of the nesting tur­tles. In one single night, there could be more than 4,000 tur­tles nesting on the beach. The thermal camera allows iden­tifying nesting turtles at night, where they concentrate the most. There are some things to adjust and correct, so next year we’ll bring an even larger group, adding expertise and technology to improve the drone assessments. The conser­vation efforts this year were successful, with no turtles ex­tracted by poachers, and participation of local news and in­stitutions to highlight the importance of this site. However, given the large number of turtles, and the ease of capturing them for the food trade, conservation efforts will be needed permanently, which makes funding challenging in the long term. One option contemplated is the creation of a protected area of some kind, which could have permanent support by Brazilian and Bolivian governments, to provide permanent and long-term protection for this important stronghold for the species.

As we said goodbye to Zeca and his team, we knew there was more work to come and that we would be returning to this site, hopefully bringing new people, new supporters, and new ideas to continue his wonderful work to protect South America’s largest freshwater turtle.

Acknowledgments: We kindly thank Andrea Batista, Ecovale, Wildlife Conservation Society, Turtle Survival Alliance, and Walter Sedgwick for their contributions and support to this work.

Contact: Germán Forero-Medina, Turtle Survival Alliance, Wildlife Conservation Society, Cali, Colombia [gforero@wcs.org], Camila Ferrara, WCS Brazil, Rua Dos Marupás, 67. Conj. Acariquara. Coroado., Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil 69082-674 [cferrara@wcs.org]

Featured photo: Giant South American River Turtles nest en masse on a Guaporé/Itenez River beach along the Bolivia-Brazil border.
All photos by Camila Ferrara/Wildlife Conservation Society