Turtle liberations in Tayrona

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During the 16th century, the European conquest of the Caribbean decimated the population of sea turtles. The arrival of galleons with buccaneers and settlers made turtles the preferred animal to have onboard. Turtle meat and their eggs provided protein and their natural oils were used for cooking and to fuel lamps. Turtles became a delicacy in Europe resulting in thousands being shipped across the Atlantic. It is estimated that pre-Columbus, 660 million green sea turtles lived in the Caribbean.

Of the seven existing turtle species four of them lay their precious cargo on the beaches of the Colombian Caribbean coast: Leatherback, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Green turtle; each laying between 80 to 160 eggs per clutch. Approximately only one out of 1000 eggs survive into adulthood and this is quite an achievement owing to the long list of obstacles they must face: including natural predation, poaching, beach erosion caused by coastal development; accidental catches in commercial fishing, and the degradation of habitat caused by water pollution and artificial lighting.

In 1999, marine biologists working in Santa Marta began documenting the decrease in nesting females in the Tayrona National Park and with the support of biologist Aminta Jauregui launched the conservation program Programa de Conservación de Tortugas y Mamíferos Marinos (ProCTMM).

With help from environmental agencies, Petrobras, the Don Diego Fishermen Committee and schools in Santa Marta, the purpose of the initiative is to research and document the seasons and specific locations of turtle nesting, as well as monitor the increase in the number of juveniles within a close habitat.

During nesting season, which runs from April to late August, the conservationists get help from fishermen who ply their trade near the Don Diego River, as well as volunteers who want to protect these endangered turtles and their nests. Once the hatchlings are born, they are transferred to the Mundo Marino aquarium in Santa Marta.

If nesting conditions are not ideal, the eggs are placed in portable incubators, which are left on the beach, or transferred to the aquarium where the turtles are born. The neonates are placed under professional and technical care for the next 8 to 12 months. They are only released, states marine biologist Carmen Lucia Noriega, once they have reached a certain height and weight.

With constant supervision of turtle eggs, earlier this year some 300 Loggerhead juveniles were released back into the wild near Tayrona National Park and part of the Introducción al Medio Natural de Juveniles de Tortugas Marinas event.

The process is relatively simple. Turtles are taken from gigantic tanks and placed on the beach. This allows their natural instincts to awaken and for females to familiarize themselves with their new location. Females faithfully return to a general area where they were born in order to lay their eggs. Each released turtle is marked allowing locals to report the code if a turtle is found or injured. Additionally, four turtles equipped with satellite transmitters have also been introduced back into the wild this year allowing marine biologists to track their migratory routes.

The Programa de Conservación de Tortugas is an example of how technology with acts of altruism can work to protect an endangered reptile. This project however is only the beginning, as it is essential for locals and tourists to be aware of the turtles which inhabit Tayrona to ensure they can start a new life in a clean and safe environment.

Involving the community in the process has been essential for the success of the Conservation Program and not undermine an initiative which can be replicated in other coastal areas of the country. Efforts to release turtles back into the wild also take place every year in Nuquí and Bahía Solano along the Pacific coast.

Teaching children a simple fact of how our actions affect the environment is also vital to the success of any conservation program and living up to this has been the Colegio Los Manglares in Santa Marta. Through active participation, the students learn that conservation goes hand in hand with building awareness and education- mainly about the effect plastic has on the marine ecosystems. “Miss, I saved a turtle” is the usual response from a student during the routine collecting of rubbish on the local beaches. The 50,000 visitors to the aquarium and the various educational and environmental campaigns associated with this program have also helped promote awareness.

Jane Goodall was quoted saying: “what you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make”. In a country where turtle meat remains an ingredient in local dishes along the coast, and their shells sold a “souvenirs”, the Santa Marta initiative is a good way to begin in order to help our turtles repopulate and reclaim their rightful place in our oceans.

 

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