As in many parts of the world, in Yupukari, a small village in the Rupununi region of northern Guyana, Christmas has always been a time of celebration.
The Christmas dish here, however, was not turkey or ham, but turtle. And not just any turtle, but the yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) found in the rivers of Guyana and other countries of the Amazon basin.
“We used to eat a lot of turtles at Christmas and other holidays, but now a lot of us have stopped. The population was declining rapidly and we know we have to protect them,” Merissa Samuel said.
Samuel, now 21, started defending turtles as a young girl, telling her grandfather not to hunt them. Becoming more adamant as a member of a local wildlife club for village youths, she eventually managed to convince him to stop hunting reptiles.
In 2020, in a lucky twist of fate, she landed what she considers the perfect job – working with turtles at Caiman House, a community-based ecotourism and research center in partnership with the Guyana Chapter of the Management Program Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM), which works towards improving wildlife conservation and food security in 13 countries.
The turtle conservation project in Yupukari began in 2011, when researcher Jeff Slocum sparked the interest of a few locals in turtle conservation. An early convert to conservation benefits, local resident Anthony Roberts is currently director of the project. Several members of the community quickly became involved, as well as the village council.
However, a turning point for the project began in 2020 when the partnership with SWM began to support a scale-up of activities. Caiman House now monitors more beaches, they have increased their hatching facilities and they also monitor the consumption of turtle meat and eggs. The partnership is perfect, as SWM provides financial and technical support, and the community contributes with local knowledge.
“Our project has become a model for other communities in Rupununi,” Roberts said. “Sand Creek, another upstream community, has also embarked on a similar project. We give them advice because we have learned a lot from our experience.
Watch out for the first rains
While the Caiman House team is now well experienced in the hatching process, climate change still makes it difficult to predict the seasons.
“We are starting to see dramatic changes; the conditions in the Rupununi River are different and that means the beaches the turtles depend on are changing,” he said. It is increasingly difficult for us to predict the hatching season. And we have to collect the eggs before the river overflows again. The amount of rain this year was just insane!
The first rains alerted project members to an impending problem, as the level of the Rupununi River rose during the hatching season.
Roberts and his team moved quickly to collect the eggs and protect them from the floodwaters that rolled into their new hatching facilities. The beaches remained covered in water well past the hatching season, meaning there were no turtle hatchlings in the wild this year in Yupukari.
The project had better luck. Its hatching success rate has increased to 65%, with 560 turtles hatched and about 460 surviving. They released 200 and kept 260 to release at the next turtle festival. when they are older. Now that some of the turtles are mature, there is also a plan to see if they will mate in captivity.
Turtle talks and environmental education
The village hosts a turtle festival every year, usually in late March or early April. Now a major event in northern Rupununi, it attracts locals from nearby villages and media attention from the capital, Georgetown.
Although the pandemic interfered with the festival in 2020, it didn’t stop the project from releasing hatchlings into the river.
The turtle party remains an excellent way to raise awareness, but other activities are also gaining interest. One of the newest ideas is the “turtle talk” with wildlife club members. The Yupukari Animal Club is an after-school program restarting now that schools are reopening after the pandemic-induced hiatus.
“We teach children about turtles, their scientific name, their name in Macushi (the local language), what they eat, and biological facts about breeding and nesting,” he said.
From turtles to more wild animals
The success of the yellow-spotted river turtle project has locals calling for the protection of other species of turtles, endangered fish, such as the arapaima (Arapaima gigas), and the other Guyana giants, Roberts said.
SWM program camera traps provided to the Wildlife Club recently captured a giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), something the village hadn’t seen in years. Much remains to be done to conserve wildlife in the region.
Sustainable wildlife management is a key component of Yupukari village livelihoods. Caiman House Conservation Projects contributes to a community cottage, born out of the village’s historic commitment to research and conservation.
“Tourism was born out of conservation,” he said. “We were able to create an industry and now people come here for the turtles, the caimans but also to observe the birds and other animals. It is a circle, research attracting tourists, tourism contributing to our lives and providing more resources for conservation.
The SWM program is an initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, funded by the European Union with co-funding from the French Global Environment Facility and the French Development Agency. It is implemented through a consortium partnership, which includes the Center for International Forestry Research, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the French Center for Agricultural Research for International Development and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
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