Akazul is a UK registered not-for-profit Community Interest Company. Registration No. 07411520  © 2011

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Guatemala’s Sea Turtles are important symbols within the country’s ancient history and present culture and are utilised by Akazul as a ‘flagship’ species to engage coastal communities in wider ecosystem conservation. Akazul believes that this will not only help preserve important habitats and their associated species, but also provide the communities who have historically utilised sea turtles and local natural resources, with a more prosperous and sustainable future.

Sea turtles have existed in our oceans for more than 150 million years and are a species of important ecological and cultural significance. Historically sea turtles have been utilised both as a source of nutrition and for trade. However, in more recent years, this exploitation along with other major threats such as habitat loss, pollution and injury or death from fishing gear have dramatically affected sea turtle populations. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), all of the world’s seven species of sea turtle are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

Sea turtles are a ‘keystone’ species that play an integral role in the health, structure and complex functioning of marine and coastal habitats. They are important indicators of ecosystem health and also act as ‘connectors’ between marine and coastal environments. The disappearance of such a key species would have dramatic effects, causing significant alterations and dysfunction within ecosystems.

3 species and one sub species of sea turtle frequent Guatemala’s coastal waters, the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacia), the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the Eastern Pacific Green (Chelonia agassizii). The main threats to Guatemala’s sea turtles are unlimited legal egg harvesting, and incidental capture in shrimp trawling and other commercial fishing gear.

The trade in sea turtle eggs in Guatemala is not illegal and there is a high demand nationwide due to their nutritional value and supposed ‘aphrodisiacal’ qualities. During the mid 1980s, CONAP (the Guatemalan Council for Protected Areas) initiated an informal ‘egg-donation system’, to promote ‘sustainable use’ of sea turtle eggs. According to this system, egg collectors are permitted to harvest unlimited quantities of sea turtle eggs, providing that 20% of the nest is donated to a local sea turtle hatchery for conservation purposes. It is estimated that close to 100% of all sea turtle nests are removed from the beach by local egg collectors (Project Parlama, 2006).

The role of the sea turtle hatchery is to provide a secure area where eggs can be relocated and left to incubate free from the threat of poaching or predation. The first hatchery in Guatemala was established in 1971 and there are now between 18-26 operational hatcheries along the Pacific coast which are managed by various government institutions, NGOs and private investors. Problems with the system include fluctuating collaboration levels, shortage of funding, lack of standardised hatchery management practices and minimal system enforcement. As there are currently no government plans to outlaw sea turtle egg harvesting in Guatemala, the only way to increase current conservation efforts is by strengthening and improving the existing system.

Akazul is working to improve the conservation of sea turtles in Guatemala through the two key channels of science and community based activities. Despite the presence of numerous established sea turtle hatcheries in Guatemala, there has historically been limited scientific study relating to nesting populations. Akazul aims to become leaders in the field of sea turtle research in Guatemala, to increase understanding of these species and apply this knowledge to formulate and promote effective conservation strategies.

Unfortunately, it is not only sea turtles that are under threat in the area. Species, such as the Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) and the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodiles) once abundant  here are now scarce, due to unsustainable hunting practices for their meat and skin, while other species, such as the White Fronted Parrot (Amazona albifrons) are sought for the illegal pet trade. In addition, expanding agricultural plantations, illegal logging and pollution are destroying important mangrove habitats, whilst unsustainable commercial fishing practices continue to threaten the coastal marine environment.

Akazul aims to work extensively with community members to raise awareness of the need for local conservation, not only for sea turtles, but for wider ecosystems and their associated flora and fauna. It is hoped that active participation in sea turtle conservation will encourage local community members to begin to address other important local environmental issues.  Our strategy ultimately seeks to help establish a balance between human and environmental needs, and hopes to promote a more sustainable and prosperous future for both.

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Akazul’s Conservation Strategy

Eastern Pacific Green / Black (Chelonia agassizii)

The Eastern Pacific Green (‘Tortuga Negra’) is a subspecies of the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) with a slightly smaller and narrower carapace, measuring approx 60-100cm.

These turtles utilise the estuary and inland waterway of Guatemala’s ‘Pozo del Nance’ (part of the Sipacate National Park) as an important foraging ground. They can be found here year round during inter-nesting periods, when it is thought they migrate to and from neighbouring Mexico.

The Eastern Pacific Green does not typically nest on Guatemala’s Pacific coast, although a few isolated nesting incidents have been reported.

The Eastern Pacific Green does not have a separate conservation classification under the IUCN. The Green Sea Turtle is classified as ‘endangered’.

Photo by Protortugas

Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)

The Hawksbill turtle (‘Carey’) gets its name from its distinctive bird-like ‘beak’, used for feeding on coral reefs due to its specialised diet of mainly sponges.

The Hawksbill is one of the smaller turtle species and measures approximately 50-90 cm in length.

This species has a beautiful and distinctive carapace (commonly referred to as ‘tortoiseshell’). Despite a ban on international trade tortoiseshell is still used in the making of jewellery and handicrafts, particularly in Asia but also in Central America.

A large Hawksbill nesting population was recently discovered in neighbouring El Salvador. However, nesting incidents in Guatemala are infrequently documented for this species.

The Hawksbill is classified by the IUCN as ‘critically endangered’.

Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)

The Leatherback (‘Baule’) species is more than 100 million years old and also the largest of the sea turtles, measuring up to 2 metres in length and weighing up to 1000 kg.

It is the only living surviving species in the genus Dermochelys, and is unique among sea turtles species as they do not have a hard carapace, but a thick, rubbery skin covering a matrix of tiny bones. This specialised flexible carapace allows them to dive greater depths than any other sea turtle (over 1000m!).

Leatherbacks have the widest distribution of all sea turtles undertaking huge migrations of up to 3,700 miles from tropical nesting beaches to temperate foraging grounds where they feed almost entirely on jellyfish.

Leatherbacks are classified by the IUCN as ‘critically endangered’, with Pacific populations having declined more than an estimated 90% over the last two decades, mainly as a result of  incidental capture in commercial fishing gear.

Now only a small quantity of nesting Leatherbacks return to Guatemala between November and February.

Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacia)

The Olive Ridley, (referred to locally as ‘Parlama’), along with the Kemp’s Ridley   is the smallest of sea turtles, measuring approx 50-75cm in carapace (shell) length.

Olive Ridleys nest along Guatemala’s 256km Pacific coastline from July to December.

The Ridley’s are the only sea turtles that perform the mass nesting phenomenon known as an ‘arribada’, where thousands of individuals come ashore at once to nest. Eastern Pacific Olive Ridley arribada sites are found in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico.

Although the Olive Ridley is considered as the world’s most abundant sea turtle, populations have still dramatically declined. The Olive Ridley is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN.