As recently as the early 1980s, sea turtle meat was sold in the public market in Panama’s Bocas del Toro. Endangered sea turtles are now better protected along the Panamanian Caribbean near the border with Costa Rica. Still, they face numerous threats to survival, STRI turtle researchers Anne and Peter Meylan write in a recent article summarizing the importance of Bocas del Toro Province and the adjacent Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé to four sea turtle species.
Threats are present throughout every life stage of the four species found in the region. Human activity remains the most pressing concern.
On beaches, clandestine hunters still kill the occasional turtle. More often, nests are raided by poachers and “subsidized predators” – animals found near human settlements – like cats, dogs and raccoons.
“Possibly due to increased nesting levels in recent years, poaching of nesting females has once again become a threat even within protected areas,” write the Meylans and co-author Cristina Ordoñez of The Sea Turtle Conservancy, in reference to hawksbill turtles, the area’s second most common nesting turtle after the leatherback.
Lobster divers “also pose a serious threat,” the researchers said. “Shallow reefs throughout most of the region are visited by lobster divers regularly, with some areas getting almost daily attention. It seems unlikely that small hawksbills can survive on reefs less than 30 meters deep long enough to reach puberty and migrate to an adult foraging range.”
Bocas had a long history of legal turtle harvests. From 1950 to 1992, tortoiseshell from of about 152,000 hawksbills was sent to international markets. Monitoring programs by numerous Panamanian government agencies and local and international nongovernmental organizations have extensively patrolled beaches since the 1990s.
Photos by Anne and Peter Meylan.
“The presence of conservation-minded visitors has also had the effect of discouraging exploitation of turtles, including the sale of meat, eggs, and tortoiseshell jewelry,” the authors write.
While Bocas del Toro’s economic shift toward more tourism may encourage turtle conservation, it also presents new challenges to recovering turtle populations.
“Threats associated with tourism and development need particular and immediate attention,” the authors say, pointing to a number of current and planned beachfront tourism developments. “Bocatoreños have historically avoided building on beachfront properties, but this is not the case for new development.”
A. B. Meylan, P. A. Meylan, C. Ordoñez Espinosa. 2013. Sea Turtles of Bocas del Toro Province and the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé, Republic of Panamá Chelonian Conservation and Biology doi: http://dx.doi.org