Charapa Turtle Management and Repopulation Project
Our first and oldest conservation project, the Charapa Turtle Management and Repopulation Project is a community-wide effort to protect two species of Amazon river turtle, commonly known as “Charapa.”
The project started with a single Cofán family and now, over 20 years later, has involved four different communities along the river, generated tremendous amounts of scientific data and led to the release of over 100,000 turtles into the wild. More importantly, with so many turtles released, the turtle population along the Aguarico River has grown to the point where limited harvesting of eggs and turtles is once again possible. This project was the Cofan’s first major conservation effort, and it has laid the foundation for much what we have accomplished in the subsequent years.
Map of Cofán territory of Zábalo courtesy of The Field Museum of Chicago
The Amazon river turtles (two species, Podocnemis expansa and Podocnemis unifilis) were traditionally one of the most important food resources for riverine populations throughout the Amazon and Orinico basins. For the Cofán culture as with other riverine cultures, the calendar of the year was determined by the annual migrations of entire villages to the nesting beaches to harvest the protein and oil-rich eggs. Salted and dried, the eggs were one of the few foods that allowed a buildup of economic surplus that could be used during prolonged trading voyages and large-scale social activities. Likewise, the adult turtles were an important protein source that could be kept in pens during lean times.
As populations in Amazonia grew, a huge commercial market developed for both the eggs and the adults. Combined with the use of modern technological innovations such as outboard motors and spotlights, this unregulated commercialization resulted in a tremendous overexploitation of the resource. By the 1980s, turtle populations throughout the Amazon had been reduced to critical levels.
The Project's Origins
The small Cofán community of Zábalo, located in what is presently the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, began the Charapa Project in 1989 as a village-based response to this decline in Amazon River Turtle populations along the Aguarico River.
Deeply involved in what would become a successful model of community-based ecotourism, community members had become aware of the need for conservation strategies to protect rain forest territories, and had pioneered a program of self-regulation of hunting activities aimed at protecting species that had high touristic values in the early 1980s. The visible success of these early measures set the stage for the community’s reaction to the alarming decline in the turtle populations. And so, at the annual village meeting in December of 1989, the community banned all harvesting of turtles and turtle products within Zábalo territories. This was the beginning of Zábalo’s “Proyecto Charapa.”
Weighing and measuring the baby Charapas
“Proyecto Charapa” is born
Zábalo community members, however, realized that a local hunting ban would have little effect on the population. Under normal conditions, less than 1% of the eggs that are laid in a given year will actually make it all the way to adulthood.
So, the community decided more proactive measures had to be taken to ensure the Amazon river turtle’s survival.
Various possible measures were discussed, including protection of beaches, artificial hatching, reproduction in captivity, and others. With a $200 fund for equipment provided from community funds, experimentation began. By 1991, several nests had been successfully hatched under care of interested families, and over 200 babies were being cared for in ponds made by raising the sides of old dugout canoes. After a year in captivity, the babies were released into the wild, and room was made for the next batch.
Over the years, the community has refined techniques used in this project and expanded its program. The system that developed involves all members of the community. Each family is responsible for checking particular beaches. Family members check for fresh nests, which are then flagged, with information as to date, river conditions, and family responsible for the nest. The family then takes care of its nests during the two months it takes for the eggs to hatch. If a flood threatens the beach, the families with nests there carefully remove the nests and “replant” them on a higher location in artificial beaches.
Once the eggs begin to hatch, the family collects the babies and the hatchlings are turned over to the project coordinators, who record each family’s number of hatchlings. A small monetary bonus is paid for each hatchling, which is an important incentive for community member.
The coordinators then put the hatchlings in large artificial ponds, where they will live for six months to one year as their shells harden and they grow in size. An initiative handled by the women of the community has established optimum feeding regimes to increase the turtles’ potential for survival in the wild.
At the end of the year, turtles are released into the Aguarico and Zábalo rivers. A percentage are marked with easily visible paint to be able to follow dispersion and survival rates during the first year in the wild. Evaluation of the project is carried out by the village monitors using three different methodologies.
The turtle species Podocnemis unifilis is identified on the UICN Red list as “Vulnerable”, and the species Podocnemis expansa as “Critically endangered”. Over the project’s life, the Cofán at Zábalo have made incredible progress towards the restoration of these species’ populations along the Aguarico River.
The project, in addition to having rebuilt the once-endangered populations of Amazon river turtles along the Aguarico, has also had a tremendous effect on the environmental consciousness of an entire generation, especially for women and children who have been specifically trained in turtle conservation during this project. Children begin to track turtles, learn marking techniques, move nests, and handle baby turtles at an early age, something no amount of “environmental education” can begin to match.
Meanwhile, in addition to the primary economic benefits perceived by community members for their direct contributions to the project, numerous secondary benefits are immediately apparent. The first and most important is that, as the turtle population has recovered, all the involved communities are once again able to harvest a limited numbers of eggs for consumption. A valuable source of protein and fat is again present in community diets, helping avoid nutritional problems that have been noted in other Amazonian populations as forest resources dwindle.
Largest of the Charapa turtles - from the first group of hatchlings over 10 years ago.
A second important benefit has been the training of a generation in conservation techniques. Zábalo has one of the most developed management systems in South America for its forests and wildlife resources. The community provides a large number of park rangers and other conservation professionals to the Ecuadorian national system. Zábalo members are also at the forefront of Cofán conservation efforts in other areas of Cofán territory.
The local community can no longer be viewed as an isolated entity that enters into conservation activities for its own benefit; rather, it must be viewed as conservation’s “front line,” the local-level caretaker of a globally important resource. In this context, Zábalo’s efforts at rebuilding the Charapa populations are not only important to the immediate community but also to the rest of the world as part of a process that includes the conservation of biodiversity, the care of the environment, and the generation of environmental services.
The Charapa Project is a rare case of an indigenous community who decided to take on the task of saving a species on our own. The community used traditional knowledge as a base for developing a practical and viable solution to an immediate problem. In the process, the Cofán not only succeeded in reversing the population decline of the Amazon river turtle, but also succeeded in creating a powerful environmental consciousness that has led to Cofán leadership in Ecuadorian indigenous conservation efforts.
You can make a difference and help keep this project running by making a donation here!
The Cofan Survival Fund (509(a)1) and the Fundación para la Sobrevivencia del Pueblo Cofán are both non-profit organizations in their respective countries.
Copyright 2013 - Cofan Survival Fund 501(c)3 nonprofit in the USA
Fundación para la Sobreviviencia del Pueblo Cofán in Ecuador