Critically endangered turtles under siege during Lent

In Colombia, intensive poaching in the weeks leading up to Easter threatens the long-term survival of two turtle species.

Photograph by Gena Steffens
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Inside a homemade incubator room in the village of Cotocá Arriba, Córdoba, a critically endangered Magdalena river turtle takes its first look at the world as it emerges from its shell.
Photograph by Gena Steffens

Lent is supposed to be about self-discipline and moderation—penance in anticipation of Easter. For Catholics, this means abstaining from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the other Fridays leading up to Easter. But when beef, pork, and poultry leave the table, fish isn’t the only alternative protein source that takes their place.

As Catholicism spread throughout the Americas, a wide array of Lenten culinary traditions using the meat of wild animals emerged. During the 17th century, the bishop of Quebec declared that, because they spent a good deal of time in the water, beavers could be considered fish and were therefore suitable for consumption during Lent. The same logic is applied in Venezuela, where Catholics feast upon capybara, a large, semi-aquatic rodent. Muskrat has long been prepared in lieu of forbidden meats in the state of Michigan, and in 2010, the archbishop of New Orleans approved eating alligator, arguing that gators are “considered in the fish family.”

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Hunters in northwestern Colombia use masks made of broad, sturdy leaves as camouflage so they can sneak up on turtles and other game animals such as wading and migratory birds. Hunting is still a vital activity for subsistence farmers in the region.

In Colombia, the faithful have their own tradition: turtles.

The consumption of turtle meat during Lent is so deeply rooted in the culture of northwestern Colombia that inhabitants have a popular saying: “If you didn’t eat turtle meat, you didn’t celebrate Holy Week.”

Long before Catholicism took root, turtles were hunted for food by the indigenous Zenú people. Even today, rural communities peppered throughout the region’s vast wetlands still consider turtles an important part of their diet.

But as the practice expanded beyond subsistence hunting to include a gastro-religious tradition celebrated throughout the most populous parts of the country, two endemic turtle species—the Colombian slider and the critically endangered Magdalena river turtle—have steadily dwindled under rates of illegal hunting that far exceed sustainable levels.

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Turtles and their meat are such an important part of regional culture that they're commemorated with monuments like this statue of a turtle-man in San Marcos. For Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda, the symbolic figure is the “personification of the endurance and almost totemic expression of the people’s shell against the hostile action of nature and the powerful people of society.”

It’s often cited that more than a million turtles are consumed every year during Lent in northwestern Colombia. “But it’s likely that the real number is two or three times that,” says Luis Carlos Negrete Babilonia, director of Econbiba, a community development program based around ecotourism and the conservation of the Magdalena river turtle in the village of Cotocá Arriba, in the department of Córdoba. “The tradition has had huge impacts on these species, because Lent also coincides with turtles’ reproductive season. This means that it’s not just the adults that are hunted—the eggs of the next generation are harvested and eaten too.”

Father Carlos Machado, a priest who was born and raised in Montería, Córdoba, says some of his earliest memories are of corrals filled with 60 to 70 turtles, which were to be eaten during Lent. “The regional environmental authority has insisted through campaigns that people stop eating turtle, and, yes, the church has supported them,” he says. “But for the church to tell people they’re going to hell for consuming a turtle? Never.”

Facing plummeting turtle populations, Colombian conservationists have spent years trying to convince their fellow citizens of the negative impacts of eating turtle meat. But eradicating the cherised tradition has proved difficult, especially because hunting turtles is still a means of survival in drought-prone areas.

Turtle meat, a forbidden fruit

“We’ve hunted turtles for hundreds of years to survive during droughts like this,” says a farmer in the remote settlement of Cuiva, in Sucre department, who asked not to be named because of the growing stigma associated with the practice. “During the rainy season, we consume fish,” he explains, gesturing toward a parched expanse of cracked earth that dissolves into the rippling heat of the horizon. “But when the water levels drop, the only thing left to eat are turtles.”

Subsistence hunting and consumption of turtles is still legal for rural Colombians, explains Eduardo Torres, deputy director of environmental management with the regional environmental authority in Córdoba. But when turtles are transported out of provincial areas such as Cuiva, they become forbidden fruit.

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Hunters often use dogs trained as "turtle barkers" to sniff out and alert owners to turtles hiding underground or beneath heaps of dried vegetation during droughts. The dogs are a source of pride and entertainment among hunters and their families. Here dogs are allowed to “play” with a live Colombian slider to keep their senses sharp.

In 2009, the Colombian government passed a law that made buying, selling, or trafficking wildlife, including turtles, a criminal offense punishable with prison time and fines of up to $10,000. But instead of eliminating turtle exploitation, the law simply drove it underground. As consumer demand persists and law enforcement tightens its grip, the value of turtle meat increases. Higher prices give hunters and traffickers greater incentive to extract the animals from their habitats and smuggle them into town.

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Homemade harpoons called chuzos are often used to hunt for turtles hibernating underground during the drier months of the year. Hunters move slowly across the landscape, stabbing the chuzo into the ground repeatedly until the metal tip strikes the shell of a turtle, making a distinctive sound.

“In November, a medium-size turtle might cost you about $1.50, but during Lent, the same turtle will go for nearly $8.00. A big one can fetch up to $16.00,” explains a turtle hunter who asked not to be named. He’s aware that by selling turtles along a highway that leads to the bustling town of San Marcos, in Sucre, he’s breaking the law.

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During annual droughts in rural areas, fish stocks are depleted. Both turtles and migratory birds such as the black-bellied whistling duck (tied onto the horn of this man's saddle horn) become vital sources of protein for communities throughout the region, many reachable only by horseback.

Like nearly everyone else born and raised in the area, he learned to hunt turtles from his father and has passed the tradition down to his children. The techniques and tools they use are the same—masks made out of broad leaves to camouflage themselves from the turtles, sharpened harpoons, large, round nets, and packs of dogs trained to sniff out the timid creatures. But today, for many families like his, hunting turtles has become more of a business venture than a nutritional or religious one.

“Everyone knows it’s illegal, but it’s our culture,” he says, waving a slider turtle in the air before placing it back in a corral alongside others waiting to be secreted in nearby kitchens. “Besides, how can I say no when there is such great economic potential?”

Tackling turtle traffickers

For environmental police in Montería, the capital of Córdoba, staunching the flow of turtles from rural areas into the city during Lent is an ongoing challenge. Over the years, they’ve seen reductions in the number of animals they intercept, but it’s hard to say if that’s because people are eating less turtle or if they’ve simply become better at evading detection.

“Traffickers have become much more discreet,” says Javier Augusto Reyes Cabrales, an environmental police officer in Montería. “A few years ago, it was common to come across shipments of 2,000 to 3,000 turtles at once. Today, it’s a much more clandestine activity. Instead of piling them in the back of trucks in plain sight, people try to hide them, wrapping them in clothes inside their suitcases or burying them among crates of vegetables.”

With the help of a dog specially trained to sniff out concealed wildlife, police have confiscated more than 1,200 turtles so far this year. While many of the delicate animals perish along the rough journey into town, those that survive are handed over to the local Wildlife Care and Assessment Center, where they’re kept in protective custody until after Holy Week.

The turtles are later released back into the wild during widely publicized celebrations. Eduardo Torres believes these festivals encourage appreciation for the turtles in their natural habitats, especially among children and teens, who are increasingly critical of a tradition they see as cruel and unnecessary. But by the time the paradigm shifts from consumption to conservation, some worry it might be too late for the turtles.

A march toward extinction

Rural communities are already witnessing just how easily a common species can fall victim to overexploitation. Unlike the Magdalena river turtle, which has been on the brink of extinction for years and is now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of species around the world, the Colombian slider isn’t officially recognized as a threatened species.

“People believe that sliders aren’t in danger of extinction,” Luis Carlos Negrete Babilonia says. But this year, both turtle hunters and conservationists say the once abundant creatures have become scarcer than ever before. “Around here, hunters have always focused on sliders because they’re so common. But now, since there is a market for their meat, they don’t just take three or four turtles for their own family—they keep hunting until they’ve gotten every last one. Now we’re seeing big reductions in this species.”

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Environmental police accompanied by an official with the regional environmental authority of the department of Córdoba and local community members gently release confiscated Colombian sliders back into the wild outside the town of Cereté.

Decimated slider populations have prompted some poachers to shift back to hunting the Magdalena river turtles which, after years of grassroots conservation efforts, are finally beginning to repopulate the banks of the lower Magdalena and Sinú Rivers—the only places in the world they’re found. Conservationists, such as people in Cotocá Arriba, who watch poachers motoring up and down the rivers in wooden canoes loaded with sacks of the critically endangered river turtles, fear that if the trend continues, everything they’ve done over the years to recuperate populations of the unique, prehistoric-looking animals will be lost.

Authorities, however, seem generally optimistic about the future of both species. Between effective law enforcement and the use of targeted environmental education strategies such as turtle-themed beauty pageants, hatchling release parties, and social media campaigns urging citizens to report turtle-related crime, Eduardo Torres believes today’s generation could be among the last to cling to the yearly Catholic tradition.

From apex predator to conservationist

The Viga family has lived along the banks of the Sinú river for more than a century. “For years I was known as the apex predator of the Magdalena river turtle,” says Armando Viga, 47, with a mix of pride and resentment. “We have always hunted them. Not just for their meat but for their eggs too.”

Armando estimates that he alone has killed more than 700 adult Magdalena river turtles. But when biologists came to the sleepy village of Caño Viejo 13 years ago and informed his family that the animals they’d hunted for generations were now among the 25 most endangered turtle species in the world, Armando’s father, Luis Alberto—also a lifelong hunter—had a revelation.

“Suddenly I understood that if the turtles disappeared here, they would disappear from the entire planet,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘We’re experts at hunting these turtles. We know their behaviors, we know how to find their nests and collect their eggs. What if we try to help them so they don’t go extinct?’”

Today, while others are out poaching turtles in the weeks leading up to Lent, the Viga family patrols the beaches where the animals emerge from the water to lay their eggs. When they discover a nest, they gently excavate it, transporting the leathery orbs to the safety of a homemade incubator room inside their home, right next to the kitchen where the same turtles were once stewed in coconut juice and ladled onto plates steaming with rice and beans.

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Found only in the lower Sinú and Magdalena Rivers in northwestern Colombia, the Magdalena river turtle is one of the 25 most endangered turtle species in the world. Here a Magdalena river turtle hatchling swims into the Sinú River after being released by conservationists working to revive populations of the turtle in the department of Córdoba.

Since starting their artisanal conservation project, the Vigas have released more than 17,000 critically endangered turtle hatchlings back into the Sinú River. But in an area nearly devoid of economic opportunities, what the Vigas are doing seems to go against all logic, despite the fact that they receive support from the regional environmental authority in Montería to help cover the expenses of their work.

“People around here think we’re crazy,” Luis Alberto says. “They ask us, ‘Don’t you realize you’re raising these turtles so other people can make money hunting them?’”

This may be true, he admits, but perhaps not for long. Times are changing. Today Armando’s children have no memory of their father as the famed turtle hunter he once was. “They don’t even know what turtle tastes like,” he says with a laugh. “In a few years, when the populations really start to come back, this will all pay off. People will realize we were doing the right thing.”

Gena Steffens is a writer, photographer, and National Geographic Explorer based in Colombia. Follow her on Instagram.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.