As in many parts of the world, in Yupukari, a small village in Guyana’s northern Rupununi region, Christmas has always been a time for feasting.
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 in the Amazon basin.
“We used to eat lots of turtles at Christmas and for other celebrations, but now many of us have stopped. The population was dropping quickly, and we know that we need to protect them,” said Merissa Samuel.
Samuel, now 21, began advocating for turtles as a young girl, telling her grandfather not to hunt them. Growing more adamant as a member of a local Wildlife Club for young people in the village, she eventually succeeded in convincing him to stop hunting the reptiles.
In 2020, in a happy twist of fate, she landed what she considers the perfect job – working with turtles at Caiman House, a community led ecotourism and research center partnering with the Guyana section of the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, 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 got a few residents interested in turtle conservation. An early convert to the benefits of conservation, local resident Anthony Roberts is currently director of the project. Several members of the community quickly got involved, and the village council got onboard as well.
However, a turning point for the project began in 2020 when the partnership with SWM started to support an upscaling of activities. Caiman House is now monitoring more beaches, they have increased their hatching facilities and they are also monitoring turtle meat and egg consumption. The partnership is a perfect match, because SWM provides financial and technical support, and the community contributes with local knowledge.
“Our project has become a model for other communities in the Rupununi,” Roberts said. “Sand Creek, another community living upstream, has now also engaged in a similar project. We give them advice because we have learned a lot with our experience.”
Be aware of early rains
While the Caiman House team is now well experienced in the hatchling process, climate change always makes it difficult to predict seasons.
“We are starting to see dramatic changes; the conditions of the Rupununi River are different and that means the beaches turtles depend on are changing,” he said. It is increasingly difficult for us to predict hatching season. And we must collect the eggs before the river floods again. The amount of rain this year was just crazy!”
The early rains alerted project members to a looming problem, as the level of the Rupununi River rose right during the hatching season.
Roberts and his team moved quickly to gather eggs and keep them safe from the floodwaters that spread into their new hatching facilities. The beaches remained covered in water well after hatching season, which means there were no turtle births in the wild this year in Yupukari.
The project had more luck. Its hatching success rate increased to 65 percent, with 560 turtles hatching and around 460 surviving. They released 200 and kept 260 to release them at the next turtle festival. when they are larger. 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 people from nearby villages and media attention from the capital, Georgetown.
Although the pandemic interfered with the festival in 2020, that did not stop the project from releasing hatchlings into the river.
The turtle festival remains a great way to raise awareness, but other activities are also gaining interest. One of the newer ideas is the “turtle talk” with wildlife club members. The wildlife club in Yupukari is an after-school program that is restarting now that schools are opening after the pandemic-induced hiatus.
“We teach kids about turtles, their scientific name, what they are called in Macushi (the local language), what they eat, and biological facts about breeding and nesting,” he said.
From turtles to more wildlife
The success of the yellow-spotted river turtle project has residents clamoring for the protection of other turtle species, endangered fish, like the arapaima (Arapaima gigas), and Guyana’s other giants, Roberts said.
The camera traps SWM Programme provided to the Wildlife Club recently captured a giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), something the village had not seen in years. There is much more work to be done to conserve wildlife in the region.
Sustainable wildlife management is a key component of the livelihoods in Yupukari village. The conservation projects at Caiman House contribute to a community-based cottage, which was born out of the historical engagement of the village with research and conservation.
“Tourism grew out of conservation,” he said. “We were able to build an industry and now people come here for turtles, caimans but also for birding and other animals. It is a circle, with research attracting tourists, tourism contributing to our lives and providing more resources for conservation.”
The SWM Programme is an initiative of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, which is funded by the European Union with co-funding from the French Facility for Global Environment 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 Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
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