Project name: River Tutle Rescue
Time of Year: approx June to August
Mission: save turtle eggs from poachers, foster baby turtles until their shells harden for better chances of survival after release
From approximately June to August every year, the floodwaters recede from the forest and the river level drops to reveal smooth sandy beaches at the Tapiche Reserve. This is when our river turtles climb up onto the sand at night to lay their eggs under the moonlight. We have three species of river turtle that nest during this time, the Arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa) locally known as "charapa," the Six-tubercled Amazon River turtle (Podocnemis sextuberculata) locally known as "cupiso," and the Yellow-spotted Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) locally known as "taricaya." Both the cupiso and taricaya are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), meaning these species face a very high risk of extinction in the wild. Sadly, lack of local law enforcement and a cultural preference for consuming the turtle and its eggs, particularly the taricaya, leaves poaching unmonitored and even accepted as a means of income.
Considered an exotic delicacy, turtle eggs fetch a high price on the black market due to market demand in Iquitos, Lima and beyond. Poachers will often wait for a female to finish laying her eggs before taking her and all of her eggs, effectively ending the life cycle of the species. Along the 400 km of river between Iquitos to the Tapiche Reserve, you will not see these turtles anymore because of egg and animal poaching, even though the river is their natural habitat. The absence of these animals outside of the Reserve puts ever more pressure on us to protect the animals we have on the property from trespassers.
Who comes to collect the eggs? Sometimes it is a group of 4-6 adults who start at the most upstream point of our property and float down with the current from beach to beach, making a social night of collecting eggs and turtles and drinking beer along the way. Other times it is a family of 6 or 8 with small children all packed into a boat, looking for a way to buy their next meal or pay for wood boards to build a wall of their house.
During turtle nesting season, we try to collect the eggs before the locals get to them. We re-bury the eggs on the beach in front of the lodge, enclosing the areas with fencing. After the eggs hatch, we foster the hatchlings until their shells have hardened and they have better chances of surviving. We then release them on the river and at lagoons inside the reserve to begin the next phase of their life.
Header photo: Taricaya babies being released into a lagoon
© 2016 Deborah Chen