Egg Collection for Conservation

Don Justo holds a basket of newly hatched olive ridley turtles inside the hatchery at El Astillero on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. The hatchery was constructed by the community in collaboration with Fauna and Flora International and MARENA as part of a project that employs community members to collect turtle eggs for conservation. © Brian J. Hutchinson

Don Justo holds a basket of newly hatched olive ridley turtles inside the hatchery at El Astillero on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. The hatchery was constructed by the community in collaboration with Fauna and Flora International and MARENA as part of a project that employs community members to collect turtle eggs for conservation. © Brian J. Hutchinson

By José Urteaga, Perla Torres , and Alexander Gaos

Don Juan Amaya moves swiftly in the total darkness of a cloudy night, navigating by memory through the patches of sand and mangroves scattered around the Padre Ramos Estuary on Nicaragua’s northern Pacific coast. The mosquitoes are especially bad tonight, but Don Juan’s thick, leathery skin is accustomed to them. He’s been doing this for 30 years now—collecting sea turtle eggs and selling them to earn a little extra money to help around the house, or to have a few drinks later with his friends. In spite of all the eggs he’s seen, it’s been years since Don Juan has seen a baby turtle. He can sense that something isn’t right and that—if things continue this way—the turtles will likely disappear completely. But in the impoverished coastal communities of Nicaragua, it is today that matters most.

Don Juan detects a slight movement on the beach—a nesting hawksbill turtle—and automatically this huevero (egg collector) makes a mark across the turtle’s track in the sand to let other hueveros know that he now “owns” this one according to the unwritten “code.” He then runs down the beach to tell Luis about his find. Luis is from the same community as Don Juan and works for a conservation project that began less than a year earlier, run by a local fishing cooperative called COJIZOPA. Luis grabs his backpack and follows Don Juan back to the turtle, which is now dropping about 200 eggs into the sand. He quickly pulls out a plastic bag and latex gloves and hands them to Don Juan, who begins to carefully collect the eggs while Luis measures, tags, and takes tissue samples from the turtle. Finished, they walk together back to the hatchery where the eggs will be relocated for their protection.

Over the coming months, Don Juan will regularly visit the hatchery to check whether the eggs have hatched and to ensure that the hatchlings are successfully released to the sea. Like other hueveros in the area, Don Juan is proud and happy to support this project. More important, he isn’t losing income by doing so. He is paid, at market price, for each egg that he helps protect, as well as for each turtle that hatches from “his” nests. In this way, the project and the local hueveros will together protect 95 percent of the hawksbill nests laid in the Padre Ramos Estuary.

It wasn’t always this way. Until last year, hueveros sold their eggs to a black market that delivered them to restaurants and bars throughout Nicaragua and into neighboring countries. Experts estimate that prior to the start of the project, almost 100 percent of the eggs laid on this beach were lost in this fashion. This transformation is remarkable, but even more remarkable is that it is not unique to Padre Ramos. A similar change is unfolding just 200 kilometers (124 miles) to the south, in the community of El Astillero.

The beach at El Astillero is covered in fishermen’s pangas (skiffs), and amid them sits a turtle hatchery where Don Justo proudly works. As he watches a nest hatch, he explains, “Our community used to be famous for looting sea turtle eggs, to the point that they portrayed us on television like the ‘bad guys’ from a movie.” For many years, there was a growing conflict between members of the community and the MARENA (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) authorities of the nearby Rio Escalante Chacocente Wildlife Refuge over access to the turtle eggs that are laid there. The conflict became so intense that ultimately lives were lost on both sides. But the relationship has changed. The solution, in part, was to construct a turtle hatchery right in the middle of the community from which the conflict had originated.

Our community used to be famous for looting sea turtle eggs, to the point that they portrayed us on television like the ‘bad guys’ from a movie.

The idea was simple; the community would agree to reduce their pressure on the refuge; in exchange, Fauna and Flora International would finance a project that would generate 20 seasonal jobs. The community members would work jointly with the authorities from the park to protect the beach at Chacocente and would also build and operate the sea turtle hatchery. A deal was made, and the hatchery was built. After construction was completed, some 200 olive ridley nests were relocated there for protection, and more than 10,000 hatchling turtles emerged 45 days later. The entire community came out to witness the spectacle and even organized a festival that made its way into local newspapers and television. Unlike the previous time the community was featured in the media, they were now the “good guys” of the movie. Currently, the relationship between MARENA and the community is much improved, and there is an ongoing dialogue between the two groups.

In yet another community, near the La Flor Wildlife Refuge to the south, the organization Paso Pacifico is leading a conservation project using similar financial incentives, but with a unique twist. In addition to compensating individual community members for protecting turtle eggs and hatchlings, they also contribute to a community fund for each nest that is protected. The community members then jointly oversee the fund and decide how the money will be spent. This process not only engages the individual poachers in the project, but also expands the spectrum of actors and addresses important social issues for the development of the community.

These successful projects are part of a new conservation trend in Nicaragua. The incentives programs described previously have proven to be an effective tool for advancing conservation in Nicaragua in a way that directly engages and benefits local communities. Once the door is open with communities, people begin to see conservation in a different light, and they become willing to consider new possibilities, such as community-based tourism, sustainable agriculture and fisheries, environmental education in schools, and more. Though still far from the goal, such communities are taking solid steps in the right direction that can be used to inform conservation efforts in similar communities throughout the world.