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An interview with Renato Bruno, Scientific Director of Turtle Love

Originally from Brazil, biologist Renato Bruno is the scientific director of a non-profit conservation organisation called Turtle Love. We were fortunate to catch up with Renato between his field seasons to find out more about Turtle Love, the turtally awesome work they do, and how they are working with Costa Rican local communities to protect the turtles that are using the stunning beaches south of Tortuguero National Park to lay their eggs.

Where is Turtle Love based and why?

We patrol the 5-km stretch of beach immediately south of Tortuguero National Park, which is called “Playa Tres”, and we base our activities around the village of Barra del Parismina. This is the second densest nesting beach for green turtles in the Caribbean of Costa Rica and, according to our preliminary data, 90% of all sea turtle nests laid on this beach were taken by poachers. Moreover, up to 100 female green turtles are slaughtered on this beach yearly for human consumption.

The government has concentrated resources (and consequently protection) around Tortuguero village, which is burdened by mass tourism. Places like Parismina, on the border of more touristy places, are forgotten by local authorities as well as the general public, which makes them special and off-the-beaten-track locations, with often more abundant nature than in the centres of attention. We are trying to put Parismina back on the map so locals can generate a sustainable source of income that does not rely on the extractive use of endangered local fauna.

📸 Turtle Love

Favourite species of turtle and why?

Leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) for sure. This is the weirdest sea monster that you can see seasonally inland (I hope Galapagos marine iguanas – and Gojira – do not get offended!!!). I once found a nesting leatherback with a flipper tag from Canada. Communicating with the project that tagged her, I became aware that she was tagged off Nova Scotia. That blew my mind completely. She’d made an over 7,000km one-way trip to nest in Costa Rica.

Best thing about working out in Tortuguero National Park?

Tortuguero is the Mecca for sea turtle research and conservation, where more than 100,000 sea turtle nests are recorded annually. This is the study site for the oldest ongoing sea turtle research and conservation program, started by Archie Carr (the father of sea turtle biology himself). Inaugurated in 1975 to protect a population of nesting green turtles, Tortuguero National Park nowadays has expanded to protect 312km squared of rainforest with primary and secondary rainforest where life thrives.

📸 Turtle Love

The Park is a barrier island separated from mainland by a system of canals. It encompasses Ramsar wetland sites of global importance, where marine and terrestrial keystone species find protection. This region has some of the densest populations of endangered species such as tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) and jaguars (Panthera onca). This is also one of the only places where animals with very different life histories, such as jaguars and sea turtles, interact. Every year at least a couple of hundred green turtles become jaguar food.

​What got you interested in turtle conservation?

Being in contact with nature since an early age. When I was about 8 years old, I started free diving off the coast of southeast Brazil, where juvenile green turtles are abundant.

I grew up in Sao Paulo, a 20-million people city, where moving a few kilometres in a car may take a matter of hours due to traffic. Whenever I had the chance, I went to the beach and spent my days exploring coastal forests and rocky coasts.

Sea turtles were kind of a connector between that unachievable underwater world and mine. They had to surface to breath periodically, that was how I felt when I was at sea. Replenishing.

📸 Turtle Love

How long have you been working with turtles?

Since 2009, but who is counting anyways? :D

What is your happiest turtle experience?

Sometimes when the turtles are heading back to the sea and we are still missing data, we cover their eyes, which makes them relax and usually stop. This time the turtle was almost reaching the sea and I covered her eyes so another researcher could finish collecting data. She immediately stopped and “fell asleep”. We took around 5 minutes to finish data collection and after uncovering her eyes, instead of going to the sea, the turtle woke up, looked to both sides and may have asked herself: “What was I up to again?”. She then turned back to the vegetation and went to prepare her nest. They do not act like the brightest stars in the clutch, but their instinctual behaviour and capacity of precise long-range navigations are a product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

📸 Turtle Love

​What have been some of the hardest experiences?

Watching a female leatherback, on her way to nest, struggle after being bitten by a jaguar. When we found her, it had just happened and she was still alive with a huge hole in the neck. There were jaguar tracks all around her. There was nothing we could do, so we just kept going with our night-time patrol. On the way back, the jaguar had come back to finish the job. The death of an adult sea turtle is always a loss. They take up to three decades to mature and only one hatchling of a thousand are estimated to survive to adulthood.

However, the next day brought us all a hard lesson: we saw a family of four jaguars, a momma and three cubs, eating that turtle. It is estimated that fewer than 15,000 jaguars still roam the wild. Jaguar populations are decreasing, and habitat loss, conflict with herders, and direct hunting are the main threats jaguars face. Jaguars and turtles have co-existed in Tortuguero from immemorial times, but jaguars preyed infrequently on sea turtles. Nowadays, hundreds of green and a handful of leatherback and hawksbill turtles are killed by jaguars every year in Tortuguero, which may be due to the lack of other resources inside the jungle. This highlights the intimate connection between coastal forests and marine resources in this region.

📸 Turtle Love

Why are these turtles threatened and what are the key conservation issues that you have observed first-hand?

Sea turtle populations worldwide are dwindling and 6 of the 7 existing species are in some level of endangerment according to the IUCN. The main threats sea turtles face are:

1. Threats on land: legal and illegal harvest of eggs and nesting females, egg predation from introduced predators, coastal development and associated threats (light pollution, beach driving, beach raking, artificial beaches, beach armouring)

2. Threats in nearshore waters: entanglement, fisheries interactions (trawling, hook and line), plastic ingestion, boat strikes, legal and illegal harvest of juveniles and adults

3. Threats in offshore waters: longlines (international fishing fleets), plastic ingestion, boat strikes, oil spills (also affects nearshore waters and coasts)

4. Across habitats: climate change > a) rising temperatures skew sex ratios leaving a female bias in most sea turtle populations, b) altered climatic regimes are causing lower hatching success and decreasing recruit numbers in sea turtle populations, and c) sea level rise is causing erosion of nesting beaches and overall habitat loss.

On the nesting beach I work at, I have experienced egg poaching, harvest of nesting females, and harpooning of mating pairs at sea. I am currently based in Bilwi, northeast Nicaragua, studying one of the only remaining legal large-scale harvesting of sea turtles. This activity extracts up to 12,000 adult green turtles a year.

📸 Turtle Love

Turtle Love

How long has Turtle Love been running?

Since October 2018. Just a baby, but the organization is tended by people with lots of experience in environmental conservation, especially with sea turtles.

Renato Bruno (second from the left) and other members of the Turtle Love team 📸 Turtle Love

What does Turtle Love do to help conserve turtles?

Turtle Love runs a community-based conservation project working to protect sea turtles nesting at Playa Tres, the 5-km stretch of beach immediately south of Tortuguero National Park (TNP). High levels of poaching still threaten sea turtles and their eggs in areas adjacent to TNP, and Turtle Love extends protection to 5 km of important nesting beach for green (Chelonia mydas), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles. In addition to monitoring the spatiotemporal distribution of nesting activity and poaching at Playa Tres, Turtle Love engages residents of local communities through outreach events and fosters development based on sustainable use of sea turtles through ecotourism. By running a monitoring project, we discourage poaching in the short term, and by involving members in the conservation effort, we foster long-term change by providing a sustainable income source that does not rely on harvesting eggs and adult sea turtles. Additionally, Turtle Love’s monitoring provides the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) with data to guide management of this nesting beach and helps ensure the continued survival of sea turtles nesting in the project area.

What is it like running night-time surveys in the pitch black?

Crazy!!! Sometimes it is not pitch black though. Last night for example was the “super moon”. It almost burned because of how bright it was :D

Walking in the dark is a crazy experience, but it is also a time of complete, meditative awareness. We walk out onto the beach and let our eyes adapt for a few minutes before start walking. It is impressive how much you can see after being in the dark for 10 minutes. After an hour you can see and hear as much as it is possible for our sorry human senses. By then, your senses are operating full speed and even a basilisk lizard jumping on the vegetation is enough to startle you!

As the volcanic sand in this region is black, we usually use shades of black and grey to distinguish between things we are seeing at night. A darker silhouette stopped in the middle of the beach is likely a log. Don’t trip over it!!! A moving dark silhouette coming out of the water is likely a turtle (or a 3-meter croc sometimes). Don’t scare (or get eaten) by it!!!

📸 Turtle Love

How do you interact with the local community? Do you see an impact of the outreach activities you do?

Turtle Love works alongside residents of nearby communities as part of three interconnected community-involvement initiatives:

1) We develop local capacity to protect the nesting beach by training and hiring research assistants from nearby communities. This professional development opportunity empowers local people to act as conservation ambassadors in their communities and help protect the resources that sustain them.

2) We foster appreciation for the intrinsic and economic value of local habitats and species by adults and children from the community. We organize public outreach events and conduct environmental education activities at local schools. We fund excursions to the nesting beach for local school groups using revenue from paying volunteers, giving children the opportunity to view and develop a personal connection to living sea turtles.

📸 Turtle Love

3) We build capacity of local host families to provide homestay experiences to volunteers who pay a daily fee in exchange for lodging and meals. We recruit paying national and international volunteers to help with nesting beach monitoring activities, and we connect volunteers with host families. This provides residents with economic opportunities based on sustainable use in lieu of extractive use of sea turtles while supporting Turtle Love’s efforts by supplying funds and personnel.

In 2019, our volunteer program channelled a third of its revenue straight to local families who participate on our homestay program. Moreover, we hired and trained two local assistants to participate on research activities.

📸 Turtle Love

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing marine turtles?

Overall, development. As we know now, Earth’s resources are finite. There should be no illusion that we (as society) can keep growing indefinitely in a world with finite resources. We are currently consuming more resources than the planet has to offer, and, in my opinion, there is no technology that will counter this effect.

​Sea turtles are also being threatened by ever more intensive methods of harvesting natural resources and modifying environments for human purposes. Different sea turtle populations are threatened more by one or other activity, but in the end it all has to do with human overpopulation and overconsumption. The only way we can tackle that is by decreasing the number of human beings in the planet and decreasing the amount of resources used. However, to tackle the problems that sea turtles face locally, you can learn more about each population and understand what you can do to alleviate their plight.

The east-Pacific leatherback turtle, for example, is one of the extant sea turtle populations that we are the most likely to see going extinct during our lifetime. This population used to nest all the way from northwest Mexico to Ecuador. However, a series of poor coastal development decisions in some of their major nesting grounds, such as Flamingo and Tamarindo beaches in northwest Costa Rica have led to nesting habitat loss. Moreover, the interaction of turtles from this population with intensive industrial fisheries off the tropical east Pacific have led to a serious drop in the population.

📸 Turtle Love

We hear that you work with the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), what data do you give them and how does this support their work? Do you think it is important that conservation organisations such as yourself work closely with the government?

We provide MINAE with all the information we collect in this beach. We work in close partnership with Park Rangers and, although we do not enforce the law, we certainly provide information that allows them to deploy their personnel more effectively. For example, during out first season at Playa Tres, we identified a couple of bottle necks from where sea turtle products were taken to local markets. Our beach is 5.4-km long and we found that most of the turtle activity happened on the northernmost portion. Moreover, all poaching happened in the middle of the beach, where local farmers and cattle herders abet this type of activity. Specifically, there is one farm that connects the beach to the canal and serves as a path for poachers to leave the area with illegal sea turtle products. At this location last year, Park Rangers apprehended two sea turtle poachers and one person hunting in the forest nearby.

Finally, another way we helped MINAE deploying personnel to enforce wildlife conservation laws was by tracking the number of poaching events through the season. We found that poaching rates were significantly higher the days preceding big local festivals, such as the Afro-descendant festival that takes place in Limon (the province capital).

What can we do to make a difference?

How can volunteers get involved with Turtle Love and turtle conservation?

​The participation of volunteers on the ground makes our sea turtle nesting beach protection and community outreach activities possible. Participants take part in morning and night surveys to help our researchers collect data on sea turtles and their nests at our monitoring area. Leatherback nesting season is February to June and green turtle nesting season is June to November. Furthermore, we offer logistics (transport, room and board, and research permitting) for universities and schools that want to carry out study abroad courses.

We welcome people who want to volunteer remotely as well. We are in constant need of people who can help us manage and create content to social media. People with web-design skills are the most needed at this moment to helps us with our website. Finally, we need to spread the word about Turtle Love as much as we can. People who want to put up flyers of Turtle Love’s volunteering program, carry out fundraising events, and give talks or invite us for webinars at their schools, universities, and other community centres, are also welcome.

📸 Turtle Love

When tourists are out in Costa Rica, what can they do to ensure their holiday isn’t harming the wildlife there?

That is a very good one!!!People participating in such projects should always make sure the program they participate in have a permit from MINAE to operate and are based on a true conservation need. Get away from the rhetoric of the people receiving you at their volunteer project and think for yourself. Read scientific articles and other materials to be acquainted with the good practices of the work you will be doing.

For sea turtles, although hatcheries provide a useful conservation strategy where you can increase hatching success of sea turtle nests, it should be only used in cases of extreme necessity. Hatcheries should never hold hatchlings back to be shown to tourists and never allow untrained or people without gloves to handle hatchlings. Furthermore, managers of hatcheries should vary the place of releasing hatchlings to not create a “feeding station” where predators gather every afternoon to feed on recently released hatchlings. Always question your volunteer program: Why do they use hatcheries? How do they keep track of hatching success? How do they manage temperature and moisture of relocated nests? What is the difference in hatching success between wild and hatchery nests? How do they clean the hatchery from one season to the next?

📸 Turtle Love

What can people do at home (e.g. in the UK) to help conserve turtles?

Consume less and consume consciously (refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle), search for sustainable and fair-tradeproducts, buy locally from farmers and producers near you (hopefully organic), eliminate single-use plastic consumption, take holidays to places like ours instead of wasteful resorts and hotels, use donations to conservation organizations as Christmas and birthday gifts, consult guides of sustainable seafood, eliminate meat and dairy consumption, and volunteer your time and skills. Remotely or on the ground, we need you!

📸 Turtle Love

Is there anything else you would like to say about Turtle Love?

In addition to our beach monitoring work, we are currently investing on the purchase of 200-hectares (2,000,000 m2) of primary rainforest and RAMSAR wetlands on the southern border of Tortuguero National Park to create Jalova Lagoon Wildlife Refuge.

Help us achieve it. With turtles as an umbrella species, we aim to protect this biodiverse tract of mature rainforest with all its inhabitants. If you want to donate to this worthwhile cause, please visit Turtle Love’s fundraising page and follow the donation prompts.

📸 Turtle Love

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Bill Shiphr
Bill Shiphr
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