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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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​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.

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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.

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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 af