Photograph courtesy Fauna & Flora International, Rachel Etherington
They survived the birth of the world’s mountain ranges, an ice age, and a cataclysmic event that destroyed every dinosaur. Yet after enduring more than 100 million years, sea turtles have finally been brought to the brink of extinction by one force: human beings.
Populations are now so depleted that every marine turtle species is endangered, some critically. But on a beach in Nicaragua, marine biologist Jose Urteaga is working hard and fast to reverse the trend. The innovative sea turtle conservation program he leads on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast blends serious science, celebrity rock stars, new income options, classroom puppet shows, and government action—energizing and uniting diverse stakeholders nationwide.
He’s brought his creativity to the right place. Nicaragua is home to five of the world’s seven sea turtle species. It also boasts one of the world’s few beaches where arribadas occur—the nesting of thousands of turtles at the same time, producing up to 600,000 hatchlings. But the nation’s poverty, the second worst in the Western Hemisphere, has mixed effects on the turtles. No money for large-scale commercial development means pristine beaches and waters for sea turtle nesting, foraging, and migration. On the other hand, economic desperation leads locals to extensively poach adult turtles and eggs as a source of income.
“We can’t only look at this from the turtle’s point of view,” Urteaga explains, “We must also see the human side.
People here say, How can I tell my hungry children that saving the turtle for tomorrow matters more than what you need today? They live on less than $1 U.S. per day, but can make $5 by selling a dozen turtle eggs to bars in the cities. That obviously tempts a lot of people to poach.”
Myth also purports the eggs to be a powerful aphrodisiac; adult turtle meat is similarly prized; and the carapace (shell) is in demand for jewelry making.
People in beach communities poach turtles because people in cities will pay for them. “So,” Urteaga reasons, “we must work with both groups.” To persuade poachers to stop, he introduces new income alternatives including organic agriculture, beekeeping, handicrafts made from recycled plastic bags, sustainable ecotourism, even hiring ex-poachers to patrol and protect nesting beaches. Meanwhile, his team raised awareness in urban areas with a massive national media campaign featuring celebrities stating, “I don’t eat turtle eggs.” The campaign, measured to reach 70 percent of city dwellers, has had the greatest impact on youth.
Children also respond to the myriad educational efforts he spearheads, from school conservation materials and teacher training to theater and chances to help hatcheries. Surveys now show a reduction in poaching by children. A series of sold-out concerts with Nicaraguan rock and folk music stars further raises awareness and funds for conservation.
“You can motivate people through their brains and their hearts,” Urteaga says. “I believe the arts are fantastic, yet underexploited, tools for inspiring change. The key is to instill pride in doing something good, in the amazing environment we have here, and in the turtles themselves.” He leverages this newfound national concern for conservation to catalyze government initiatives protecting key habitats.
Urteaga’s empathy for human needs is always paired with strong science. Working as a marine biologist with Fauna and Flora International, his team has developed monitoring protocols, established 24-hour patrols of nesting beaches, started tagging and recording data, discovered the coast’s largest leatherback nesting area, and created a network of hatcheries.
Before they began work, almost every leatherback turtle egg laid on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast was poached. Only a few years later, studies estimate more than 90 percent of leatherback nests are protected on key beaches. “We’ve protected 350 leatherback nests and more than 45 females,” he reports. “Those numbers sound small until you realize that the entire eastern Pacific population has fewer than a thousand females.”
Many feeding grounds overlap with fishing areas. The turtles become hooked or entangled as they navigate a web of long lines stretching for miles. “This often means death for the turtle, and lost time and equipment for the fishermen,” Urteaga explains. “So we’re teaching them how to handle and release the turtles back into the water. We’re also promoting a program to give fisherman new hooks that catch fish, but are less harmful to turtles.”
His passion is contagious. “Imagine walking on the beach at night, the sky completely full of stars. Suddenly you see this big dinosaur lumbering out of the sea—a 1,000-pound, 2-meter-long [450-kilogram, 6.5-foot-long] turtle. With incredible concentration, she uses her flippers to dig a huge nest in the sand. Just as she’s about to lay her eggs we slip a plastic bag in the hole, catch the eggs, and relocate them to a hatchery or other area safe from poachers," he says. "Now that I’m a father myself, what we’re doing to protect the environment and species for the next generation has become tangible in a whole new way. We haven’t won the war, it may take the rest of my lifetime, but we are determined to succeed.”
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The world's largest sea turtle-the leatherback-is named for its leathery carapace. Ranging thousands of miles and diving to depths of over a thousand yards, leatherbacks can grow to over six feet long and weigh almost a ton.
What are Jose Urteaga and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In Their Words
I don’t just work with turtles, I work with people. Sea turtles have been here since ancient times. The problem is us.
A childhood fascination with sea turtles leads Emerging Explorer Jose Urteaga to protect the amazing leatherbacks.
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