A beginner’s guide to community-based conservation

Written by Lissett Medrano

I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I decided to quit my job of 5 years and move to a small rural community in Guerrero, Mexico to work with sea turtles, especially since I had never “worked with turtles” before. But after spending 10 months working alongside the Juluchucan volunteers that manage La Tortuga Viva (LTV) sea turtle sanctuary, I have a much better understanding of what community-based conservation entails. One thing I’m definitely sure of now is that I made the right choice and this experience has paved a clearer path of how I want to continue to support preserving this planet and its vulnerable species. There were many lessons learned and even more people I am eternally in gratitude toward.

Given that I was the first person to formally work with the camp in this capacity (as “turtle sanctuary coordinator”), my experience was an open canvas and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to completely take charge and make this role my own. At first, it was a bit challenging adjusting to working with little direction, but ultimately I thrived on the lack of formal structure in this role, which enabled me to cultivate leadership skills that I hope to continue develop and apply in the future.

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As mentioned in a previous blog, I dedicated a bulk of my efforts in my first few months in building relationships with the volunteers, mainly composed of males. A few of my priorities included:

  • Renew permit with Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) required for nest relocation
  • Construction of new sanctuary
  • Capacity building of camp volunteers
  • Improve turtle release with Playa Viva guests
  • Environmental education and awareness
  • Facilitate partnerships with local turtle camps
  • Improve data collection

However, as I began to learn more and more about the issues in the camp, I ultimately dedicated most of my energy toward the first three priorities: permit renewal, new sanctuary and capacity building.  

FUNDRAISING FOR NEW CAMP AND PERMIT RENEWAL

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It is a conservation best practice for artificial hatcheries to be moved approximately every 2 years to prevent the buildup of bacteria and ants caused by egg shell remains, which threaten the success rates of hatchling turtles. LTV had been operating for many years without relocation and the hatchling success rate was suffering. Also, the camp had a significant amount of wear and tear and was no longer effective against predators such as the tejones, local badgers that managed to get in and prey on multiple nests on a daily basis. After assessing the cost and qualities of supplies needed, we realized it was much higher than expected so decided to fundraise through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

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There were many hurdles every step of the way in building the new turtle sanctuary and getting the permit paperwork ready. There were challenges for even the most simple of task; for example, borrowing some tools for construction was met with surprising resistance. After a month in the process of acquiring the supplies, it seemed that every action in this process would require strategic thinking and would take much longer than expected. There is no local Home Depot to pick up wood or black shade mesh required for these types of sanctuaries. I worked with multiple staff at the hotel in locating, ordering and delivering these supplies to the new sanctuary location.  I didn’t always make the best choice and it was tough to come to realization that I should have gone about things a different way. In the end, all the hardships I experienced and approaches that “didn’t work” will enable me to better address these type of issues in a different context in the future so I took them as lessons learned.

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So many people were involved in helping with the permit process and the creation of this new camp and I am beyond grateful to all the family, friends and other donors who supported these projects. Through this collective effort, up to 6000 turtle eggs will be monitored at a time in the new camp.

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Below is a brief timeline of the process for both tasks.

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Submitting paperwork in Mexico City: SEMARNAT

CAPACITY-BUILDING

Another exciting opportunity for the camp were some of the capacity-building activities that we were able to begin. Throughout the year, despite some resistance, we established semi-regular meetings to discuss internal issues that were hindering the effectiveness of the camp and I worked to rally and empower the volunteers to talk about these issues openly. Though these efforts sometimes clashed with the views of the President, it’s important to facilitate these exchanges in order to build an organized and high-performing team of motivated volunteers.

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We were also able to organize a few capacity-building workshops with the volunteers. With the help of Joao Gouveia, a fellow conservationist in the area who has experience in training turtle camp volunteers, the camp received training on sea turtle management, biology and handling with the aim of improving sea turtle hatchling success. For many volunteers, this information was new and they were eager to learn more and apply their new knowledge in the field during their patrols. These quarterly trainings will continue in the new season.

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SOME TAKEAWAYS

I’ve learned an incredible amount about what conservation “on the ground” really is. Here are some of my takeaways/advice for anyone looking to work in community-based conservation:

  • Focus on the big picture- it’s impossible to solve all the issues;

  • Sea turtle conservation in rural Mexico = working with people 90% of the time;

  • It is absolutely essential to understand what incentivizes and drives the community to conserve or not conserve;

  • Community-based conservation is a complex ongoing process and there isn’t “one way” to do it successfully but a multitude of ways to address it.

Although the new camp, permit and capacity building opportunities are incredibly exciting news, the most rewarding part of my work with the camp were the relationships I built with all the volunteers. Being an outsider and in a new role, it was a tough integration on both sides that took a lot of time, patience and learning. As I began to say my goodbyes to this beloved community, a few of the guys, including the Camp President, reflected that they were really proud of what we accomplished and having someone so invested in their work has given them more reason to “echarle ganas” or “work hard” which made the all hardships worthwhile as they are the ones that will ultimately be the protectors of this vulnerable species in the community.

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It was bittersweet but I left Juluchuca full of hope for the future of the camp and its volunteers. For an extended update of LTV’s activities this year, you can check out the Season 8 Report here.

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La Tortuga Viva: Predator-Proofing 101

 

Turtle Sanctuary

With an average of 6 turtle nests ransacked by predators each night, the more that our volunteer team can reach and relocate to the safe, secure haven of  La Tortuga Viva Turtle Sanctuary, the better!

Yet our rivals – mainly coatis and tejones – are a cunning bunch, and as they refuse to rest on their laurels, nor can we.

So as they continue to adapt and find new, innovative ways to defy our sanctuary security measures,  so must we strive to stay one step ahead. (And if there’s anything we relish, it’s a challenge!)

Cue our January renovation project:  Predator-Proofing Round Two.

Our mission? To rethink our security strategy, helping us to remain in the winning corner for the 6th year running…

Step 1: Strengthening the Structure 

While our unique position – just a stone’s-throw away from the seashore – is one of our favourite features, Playa Viva’s picturesque setting still brings with it a couple of drawbacks. Case in point: weathering.

Although we carefully select the most durable local materials available when building our 100% natural structures – from our eco-casitas and yoga studio, to our plant nursery and turtle sanctuary – we’re also well aware, that soon enough, these will all require an upgrade.

Thankfully, many hands do indeed make light work, and so our team of volunteers – permaculture staff, locals and international workers – made replacing the 100+ wooden posts that lined the sanctuary perimeter, and provided sturdy support for the mesh roofing, look a lot easier than 5 days of solid work under the burning sun would suggest!

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Step 2: Climb-Prevention Canopies

Fearing that turtle egg predators weren’t far off mastering their mesh-climbing skills, and would soon be scaling our wired walls with spiderman-like ease, it was time to put our heads together. Head of permaculture, Sapo – known for his awe-inspiring problem-solving powers – came up with a solution in no time, a mosquito-mesh canopy, along with a comprehensive construction plan detailing how exactly the design would work.

(That’s one of the beauties of being part of a living, breathing, continually-evolving project such as Playa Viva; who needs a blueprint when you’ve got your killer instincts to rely on, and sufficient head-space to hear them!)

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Thus, the team set about cutting the mosquito mesh to size; threading pliable wire through the top and bottom (the top, to attach it to the wire mesh; the bottom, to hold the mesh between posts in place); fitting wooden supports to the perimeter posts; and finally, attaching the mesh to the wooden supports. So coati be warned – you may get up, but you certainly won’t get over!

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Step 3: Blocking the Diggers

Having dealt with the ‘up and over’ style of break-in, our final step was to thwart the attempts of those who may call our bluff, and choose the ‘down and under’ approach…

For this solution, mesh came up trumps again – as did Sapo – who decided that a deeply-embedded, double-mesh-whammy would create the ultimate predator barrier.

And so, trenches were dug, wire mesh walls were pulled down and repositioned, and an extra mosquito mesh was laid on the inside – all ensuring that no creature, however great or small can pass through the net…quite literally!

 

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La Tortuga Viva (The Living Turtle) Background: Situated at the southeast corner of Playa Viva, the sanctuary is run by an all-volunteer staff, comprised of members of the local community. These are fisherman and farmers who recognized the damage being done to the local turtle population and decided to make a difference.

To make a donation click here.
Read the 2012-13 Annual Report click here.

How Lucky to Participate in Protecting a Life So Rare

Guest blog, submitted by Debbie Greenberg

Turtle at Sunrise
Photo by to Anna L. Hartmann

One week ago I was fortunate enough to accompany members of the La Tortuga Viva turtle sanctuary on one of their nightly patrols of the beach near Playa Viva and beyond. They search for sea turtle nests in order to protect the eggs from poachers and predators by moving them to their nursery for safekeeping until they hatch and are released.

It was very interesting to see first-hand the work done by these local volunteers and better understand the effort they make every night and early morning (one patrol is from 10 p.m. to about midnight and another begins at 4 a.m.) The stars over the ocean were incredible as we bounced along on the group’s one all-terrain vehicle.  Elias, head of Tortuga Viva and my guide for the night, explained how to look for turtle tracks and nests. We were unlucky, though: we found two nests, but unfortunately human poachers had beat us to them and the eggs were gone. We also saw 3 dead turtles at different points along the beach, most likely drowned at sea by the nets of fishing trawlers.

All was not lost, we were tremendously lucky because when we got back to the nursery enclosure at midnight a nest was hatching, and I actually got to see the baby turtles making their way up through the sand! Elias gently began moving sand aside and carefully collected handfuls of baby Olive Ridley turtles for release back to the ocean.

One week later, when we WWOOF volunteers arrived at Playa Viva for work at 6:30 a.m. we were told by the Playa Viva team that a turtle was on the beach right in front of the hotel. We ran pell-mell down to the sand, scrambling for our cameras, fearful of missing the sight; lucky for us the turtle wasn’t moving too fast, so we were able to watch as she lumbered back into the sea. It was a very big turtle (about 3-4 feet long) and it turns out we were really lucky because it was extremely rare Black turtle, called “Prieta” by the locals (chelonia agassizii).

The turtle sanctuary volunteers were on hand, waiting for her to go back to sea before protecting her eggs by securing them from predators in the sanctuary. It was so exciting to see the tracks she had made coming up the beach, the two false nests she had made (apparently a natural defense mechanism against predators) and her tracks going down. The volunteers who were there gently probed the sand with a long stick, trying to find the true nest, but were worried they might damage the eggs. One went back to town to fetch a couple of more veteran Tortuga Viva members while the other stayed here to mark the spot and guard the nest against possible interference. He explained that although they had been working on the patrol for a year, they had never found a Prieta nest before. Once senior patrol members Elias and Hector arrived, they knew right where to look, and began to dig. Hector is tall and has long arms, but he dug down until he was leaning almost completely into the hole before finding the eggs. He began to gently bring them up, two or three at a time; they were round and about the size of large golf balls. 81 eggs in all!

By this time they had an audience of all the WWOOF volunteers, a Playa Viva staff member who had brought down a shovel to help if necessary, and several Playa Viva guests. The eggs were placed in a couple of bags and taken to the turtle sanctuary, and we followed them watch the rest of the process of securing the eggs for incubation. Once the eggs were safely buried in their new, man-made nest 65 cm deep, we were given a ride back to Playa Viva.

The Black turtle is highly endangered; lucky for her to have concerned volunteers on hand to safeguard her eggs, and what luck for us to have witnessed a species so rare to be almost extinct.

Que dia!

Martin FishContributed by Martin Goebel – As a fisherman you are usually prepared for anything, mostly disappointment.  Not on this day in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.  Organized by “Johnny,” one of the guides at Playa Viva, a wonderful, close-to-nature eco-resort, I went deep-sea fishing over Thanksgiving week.  It was magical.  The dolphins and turtles graced the deep blue water.  They were everywhere.  Then, at six miles out and about 11AM we started getting hit by sailfish streaking every which way like fine lances through the water.  At one point we had “four on.”  That was wild.  In the end, I think we counted eight landed (six released) and many more hooked.  “Capitan Jaime” annointed my largest a trophy of 80lbs!  It felt bigger.  Promise.

What a day!

NOTE: See video of dolphins click here – https://vimeo.com/82021769

About the author  – Martin Goebel is one of the pioneers of the sustainability movement was a recent recipient of the prestigious Earle A. Chiles Award for his contribution to the movement. His desire to find solutions that work for communities, businesses, and the environment during the timber and salmon wars of the 90’s led him to create Sustainable Northwest in 1994. Born and raised in Mexico, Martin’s conservation career includes leadership positions in The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and World Wildlife Fund. He has helped found several organizations including the Mexico Nature Conservation Fund, Wallowa Resources, and Lake County Resources Initiative, and was a founding member of the Oregon Sustainability Board. Currently, Martin recently serves as founding principal of Moebius Partners LLC, a firm dedicated to assisting social entrepreneurs and enterprises to secure human knowledge and financial capital to grow and succeed. Martin is an avid scuba diver and fly fisherman, and enjoys exploring new cultures, rivers and reefs any chance he gets.

Turismo Sustentable – Playa Viva

Los invitamos a ver este vídeo producido por Oliver Velazquez sobre el tema de Turismo Sustentable y como Playa Viva esta haciendo su parte en promover biodiversidad, la comunidad local, energía y agua renovable y limpia y turismo “deluxe” que atrae la gente local y extranjera para el beneficio de la comunidad y el medio ambiente.

Disfruta. De lo poco que publicamos en español, me da gusto tener programas como este.

Birthday Without Presents? Yes, This Is a Happy Story…

Maya with her sister and a poster she made of the marine turtle rescue work by La Tortuga Viva

When Maya celebrated her birthday recently she did something very, very special. Rather than contribute to conspicuous consumption she made a sacrifice few kids would make. She forsook the treasure trove of toys in exchange for giving back to nature. Read the details in our interview with Maya below.

Playa Viva” How did you get the idea to raise money for the turtle sanctuary?”
Maya “Because I always got presents and I knew how long I played with them which was just one day, and I thought maybe I should do something else for this birthday. “

Playa Viva – “How did you pick La Tortuga Viva?”
Maya – “Because it is the only one I know of and I really like how it helps save the most endangered turtles.”

Playa Viva – “How did you raise the money?”
Maya – “I asked everybody that came to my party not to bring gifts and to instead donate that money they would have been spending on presents.”

Playa Viva – “Did you learn anything about turtles and how people rescue turtles?”
Maya – “Yes. I learned that turtles are very endangered because people eat them and take the eggs from their nests and eat them too.  That causes there to be fewer turtles in the world, and their population is going down.  To rescue them, they cut off the beaches from cars and people.  After they hatch, they help the baby turtles into the ocean so they can be free.”

Playa Viva – “Was it fun and what did you enjoy about doing a fundraiser for your party?”
Maya – “It was fun because I knew the turtles would be safe and I knew I was doing something good.”

Maya, we applaud you for your sacrifice and commitment to making a contribution to promoting biodiversity and improving the chances of survival for marine turtles.  The funds raised by Maya were used to purchase cyclone fencing to expand the turtle sanctuary in order to have room to protect more eggs and thus more turtles. Thank you Maya and to all who attended your party and gave generously.

Perfect Timing

The day after I arrived at Playa Viva I hopped on a 4-wheeler and rode a few minutes over to the Tortuga Viva turtle sanctuary. The rows and rows of markers looked a little like miniature headstones, but instead they served the opposite purpose. As the mother turtles had come onshore the night before to deposit their eggs, local volunteers were there to gather them and transfer each batch to the safety of the sanctuary. Now, they were marking last night’s finds so they’d be ready when in two months’ time these eggs hatched into baby sea turtles.

¿Número?
174.
¿Fecha?
7 de agosto.
¿Huevos?
63.
¿Tipo?
Golfina.

As I watched, the volunteers marked each of the previous night’s finds—recording the nest number, the number of eggs, the type of turtle, and the date.

Fast forward one week and I’m back at Playa Viva, relaxing before the start of a new week, when I hear the 4-wheeler headed down the beach from the turtle sanctuary. The volunteers arrive carrying a bucket, and when I peer inside I see tens of scrambling baby sea turtles – the first hatchlings of the year!

My timing couldn’t have been better: one week earlier I was watching eggs go into the ground for their two month incubation period, and now here I was looking at the season’s first set of turtles ready to be released into the ocean. Julia (Playa Viva’s manager), the two volunteers, and I made our way down to the waves where they poured the turtles onto the sand and we all watched as they scrambled toward the ocean.

Tortuga Viva’s volunteers told me that last year they released more than 100,000 baby sea turtles into the ocean. My fortunate timing—seeing eggs buried one week and baby turtles entering the ocean the next—is the result of the time and dedication these volunteers devote to gathering and caring for the eggs that mother turtles leave on Juluchuca’s shoreline. They protect the eggs from predators and poachers and shepherd the baby turtles back to the ocean when they hatch. Playa Viva supports and partners with local volunteers to support these conservation efforts.

Check out the video below to see this year’s first release, or, better yet, come down to Playa Viva to see it for yourself!

Nick’s Turtle Video from Playa Viva on Vimeo.