Inside the Local Movement to Recover Colombia’s River Turtles

Magdalena River Turtle Hatchling
A Magdalena River turtle hatchling “EL PATO” SALCEDO / WCS Colombia

At dawn on the Río Claro Cocorná Sur, near the tributary’s confluence with the great Magdalena River in northwestern Colombia, the rising sun gave light to turtles slipping off logs and howler monkeys stirring in the guadua trees.

“There’s one!” As we motored downstream, Isabel “Chava” Romero Gerez paid passing attention to the howler monkeys, but she counted every single Magdalena River turtle. The brown, smooth-shelled reptiles with pronounced nostrils were at times fully out of the water, sunning themselves—but mostly their small, dark heads were just barely visible, poking out of the clear, shallow current.

The turtles are a critically endangered species endemic only to a few river basins in northern Colombia—and Romero is their self-appointed guardian. Born in a fishing hut on an island of the Magdalena not far from here, she came to this small tributary town of Estación Cocorná as a child. Estación Cocorná is where she’s lived ever since—where, at age 35, she learned to read and write; where she went on to earn a vocational degree in environmental management from SENA, Colombia’s public technical institution; and where, as part of her studies, in 2010 she created a community sanctuary for the species that has come to mark her life’s work. Romero has become another of Colombia’s many intrepid local environmental activists working in the world’s most perilous country to advocate for nature. She’s an enthusiastic, independent conservationist who, with hardly any financial resources, regularly leads groups of locals and visitors on grassroots educational riverboat trips to raise awareness about the turtles and release hatchlings back into the wild.

I first met Romero in 2018 in Estación Cocorná, just one stop on my four-week journey along the entire length of the legendary Río Magdalena to report a book about Colombia’s greatest waterway. I’d traveled in the country before—a few years earlier, as a college freshman, I worked as an intern for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Colombia office, where I translated news bulletins into English and made videos documenting the conservancy’s field projects in rural communities. Colombia is the second-most biodiverse country on the planet, and I was interested in how ordinary people interacted with the rich natural world around them, especially as vast tracts of land and water were becoming more accessible with the country’s fifty-year conflict seemingly inching towards peace. Many of Colombia’s species, like the Magdalena River turtle, are not found anywhere else on Earth.

Inside the Local Movement to Recover Colombia’s River Turtles
Isabel Romero lifts an adult river turtle from a pool in the turtle sanctuary she created in her hometown of Estación Cocorná. For more than a decade, Romero has been working to change her community’s attitude towards river turtles, emphasizing the need to conserve rather than consume them. Jordan Salama

I learned from the Wildlife Conservation Society that along the banks of the Río Sinú—in a small town called Cotocá Arriba in the remote wetlands of Colombia’s Córdoba Department some 230 miles to the north—another local conservationist, Luis Carlos Negrete Babilonia, runs a similar community river-turtle conservation and ecotourism program, called Econbiba, with support from WCS and other international environmental organizations. “People recognize it now as a species that needs our help,” Negrete said of Podocnemis lewyana, the Magdalena River turtle. “When they find a turtle on a beach along the river, they tell us! And we can go to safeguard the nests.” Working primarily to incubate and hatch eggs, Negrete estimates that his organization has released more than 20,000 river turtles since its inception in 2005.

The endangered reptile occurs in only a handful of river basins in the world, all in northern Colombia, and has been named among the planet’s 25 most at-risk freshwater turtles. “The Magdalena River turtle is both endemic and imperiled, so that’s why it’s one of the focuses of the turtle conservation work that we do in Colombia,” said Dr. Germán Forero Medina, a biologist and ecologist leading the science team for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s office in Colombia. Dr. Forero is also the country program coordinator for the Turtle Survival Alliance, a nonprofit working towards the conservation of freshwater turtles and tortoises around the world.

Throughout its range in Colombia, the Magdalena River turtle has been driven to the brink of extinction because of uncontrolled habitat loss, river pollution and the illegal consumption and trade of adults and their eggs. In the past quarter-century alone, it has undergone mass population declines of 80 percent. And in recent years, along the Río Sinú, the river turtles’ nests have also become threatened by a hydroelectric dam constructed further upstream: When water is released and river levels rise, their nests on the sand have been flooded and hatchlings can die. “Now the most critical threat in the Sinú River are those changes in the natural flow,” Dr. Forero said.

Inside the Local Movement to Recover Colombia’s River Turtles
The Magdalena River cuts a path through a lush valley. AscentXmedia via Getty Images

Local leaders like Negrete and Romero are also working to change their communities’ attitudes toward the vulnerable animals, motivating ordinary individuals to conserve them rather than consume them.

“I’ve had kids come in bringing turtles that they took from their parents at home, in order to set them free,” Negrete said. “For sure, before the project began, those turtles wouldn’t have been reported, they would have been eaten.” But it hasn’t been a total change just yet. “I can’t tell you that the whole population has stopped eating them entirely,” Negrete continued, “but what has happened is that people have become aware of the need to conserve them and have started to report turtles and nests when they see them.”

Educational programs and workshops have emphasized the value in protecting rare and endangered species, encouraging hands-on community involvement. Young and old alike have signed on to the initiatives. In Estación Cocorná, 88-year-old Aurelio Delgado Calderón recalled to me when he first moved to the town, during the middle of the last century, and would spend his days on river beaches collecting turtles and their eggs to sell in the nearby city of Puerto Boyacá. “She’s going to kill me for saying this,” Delgado said of Romero, laughing, “but I ate thousands of turtles back then.” He now thinks of eating the turtles as unfathomable, because of Romero’s projects and the fact that the community is behind the conservation of the species.

But conservation work involving ordinary people, however passionate they might be, is not without its challenges. As more locals become inspired to help, the future of this work will be to ensure that communities have necessary resources, training and guidance to ensure the best conservation outcomes for the species on a case-by-case basis. Most of Romero’s efforts now, for example, focus on collecting eggs and releasing hatchlings—a process known as “head-starting”—largely because her project relies heavily on the little income that it can generate from tourists who pay to participate in the turtle releases. Unlike along the Sinú, the biggest threat in Romero’s Magdalena basin is not the flooding of nests but the poaching of egg-laying adult females, according to Dr. Forero.

“I don’t want to say that eggs are the silver bullet in every case,” he said. “It’s definitely a good way to raise awareness, because the hatchlings are cute and great for taking pictures.” But in some situations, Dr. Forero continued, head-starting may be unnecessary—even counterproductive, removing the eggs from their natural, fragile nests and disorienting hatchlings—not to mention that doing it right involves complex work. For example, temperature has to be carefully controlled during the two to three months of incubation, because the temperature of developing turtle eggs is what decides whether the offspring will be male or female. Sand should come from the same area where the nests were recovered, and during incubation humidity is maintained by covering the containers of eggs and sand with plastic. Romero and her team, with guidance from CORNARE, a regional environmental authority, maintain an average ratio of 70 percent female and 30 percent male hatchlings through temperature control, she said. During head-starting, hatching more females, who in the future will lay eggs, is key to the survival of threatened turtle species, Dr. Forero said.

Despite still needing greater resources, Romero powers on fervently with her work, and has continued to see its positive effects in her community and local area. Locally reported turtle sightings are increasing, she said. “The change in community culture, too.”

Inside the Local Movement to Recover Colombia’s River Turtles
Isabel Romero prepares a baby Magdalena River turtle for release into the Río Claro Cocorná Sur as tourists look on. Hatching and releasing baby turtles, a process known as head-starting, is the most common conservation technique for turtles along Colombia’s rivers, but it does not come without its challenges. Jordan Salama

Early one August morning in Estación Cocorná, I found Romero tending to a large blue bucket by the banks of the Río Claro Cocorná Sur. Inside were more than twenty baby turtles, each one no longer than a few inches, that had recently hatched in an incubator.

We piled into a brightly colored lancha, a small wooden boat with an outboard motor, with a few of her neighbors and followed a group of day-trippers upriver. Brown eagles with white-tipped wings flapped and soared over the water, often carrying small fish in their claws. We passed a towering 122-year-old Ceiba tree, nicknamed “The Girlfriend of Cocorná,” which Romero said was the tallest tree in the area. At one point, we motored beneath two thick wire lines stretching across the river, a few hundred feet apart from one another. “So that the howler monkeys can cross!” Romero announced with pride. Another community accomplishment. The turtles, piled atop one another in the bucket, were restless in their excited scraping, and I constantly readjusted the giant elephant-ear leaf that Romero had placed over them to shield them from the scorching sun.

After a few minutes, our caravan of riverboats stopped at a wide beach. We waded through the warm water onto shore, and Romero cradled the bucket in her arms like it was a small child. The day-trippers shot each other uneasy glances, unsure of what was happening. When Romero pulled out the first baby turtle, the crowd gasped, and the children jumped with excitement. She placed the turtle on the ground, and it immediately began scrambling across the rocky sand towards the water.

Soon, dozens of the tiny black reptiles were scurrying into the water away from the outstretched arms of human helpers, mainly children. “Colombians reclaiming their nature,” as Romero put it. “I’m even more committed now than when I began,” she said, “and every day I’m filled with more energy to strengthen the conservation of the turtles and all of our natural resources.”

Scientists applaud the efforts of local communities, which they say are crucial to the survival of the critically endangered species. But they also emphasize that more has to be done on the macro level, because the Magdalena River turtle’s overall population remains in decline, despite potential localized improvements. Community agreements to prohibit the consumption of all turtle species would provide more protection for the most endangered ones. Turtle conservation could become part of formalized environmental education curriculums in public schools. And greater enforcement of the trade and consumption of prohibited species would crack down on illegal poaching.

For all that communities like Estación Cocorná still need to succeed, certainly there is plenty of energy and hope. “There were once so many turtles, so many!” Romero’s son Alvarito Diaz would say to me a few days later. “Someday my children will see them again like before.” Until then, on the river, Romero will continue counting the turtles one by one as if they’re her own, as if they’ve come to reappear if only for a moment to send their greetings, and thanks.

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