Community effort saves turtles from extinction on the Trombetas River

The Trombetas River Chelonian Program (PQT, in Portuguese) provides training and support to local residents, and increasingly engages them in biodiversity conservation projects. In addition to generating income and improving people’s quality of life, the virtuous circle created by the PQT is also helping to save several chelonians species, including the Arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa), which is under threat of extinction.  

The 2020 season ended in January with the release of chelonians hatchlings on the spawning beaches of the Rio Trombetas Biological Reserve, in the state of Pará. Over 50,000 baby turtles are returned to nature every year, a number that has remained high as a result of the monitoring work carried out in the region.

The PQT is part of the Participatory Biodiversity Monitoring Project (MPB), supported by  PCAB. It is run by the Ecological Research Institute (IPÊ) in partnership with the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio).

The monitoring efforts involve about 80 local monitors, who live in quilombola communities in the municipality of Oriximiná, on the banks of the Trombetas River. They are responsible for the conservation of three species of chelonians on 15 beaches: Arrau turtles, tracajás (Podocnemis unifilis), and pitiús (Podocnemis sextuberculata).

During the monitoring, community members take turns on the beach to protect eggs and hatchlings from predators, poachers, and smugglers. The period runs from July, when turtles start looking for spawning grounds, until November or December, when the last eggs hatch. Monitors receive financial support and all the infrastructure they may need to remain on the spawning beaches for the full period – away from their own communities. During the monitoring season, they are unable to maintain other sources of income.

“I do it because I like it. I love what I do. I feel very happy to be able to share our work and love for nature," says Manuel dos Santos, known as “Socó”, a volunteer and biodiversity monitor at the Trombetas Biological Reserve.

During the last season, however, some adjustments had to be made because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Monitors took turns on the beach, instead of moving there for the full season; and the large hatchling release events were suspended to avoid crowds. In addition, they received prevention kits, including masks, hand sanitizer, and other equipment. 

"Monitors worried about not being able to spend more time on the spawning beaches. They feared there might be a reduction in the number of eggs, and that looting and theft might increase. But fortunately, they were wrong: we had a good number of nests and hatchlings, and there was no drop compared to previous years," explains IPÊ biologist Virgínia Bernardes.

Since 2017, the number of hatchlings has exceeded 50,000 per season, considering all three species. In addition, according to Bernardes, there was a significant increase in the number of females that spawned on the Trombetas riverbanks, reaching 800 in 2019.

The number of spawning females shows that the monitoring project has been successful, and reflects the result of having protected and released young females in previous years.

REBIO - The Rio Trombetas Biological Reserve is a conservation unit (UC) created in the early 1980s, around the same time of the PQT project. Despite having a different format back then, its focus has always been on the preservation of Arrau turtles, among other species.

This species was almost extinct, being one of the main targets for hunters and smugglers in the region, mainly for their meat and eggs, extremely valuable in the region.

"In recent years, we have noticed increasing engagement among local residents, who have also received more training and support from PQT partners. The importance of turtle conservation is passed on from parents to children. We can see the results at each new release season," celebrates Bernardes.

This father-to-son tradition is part of the daily life of biodiversity monitors, and Manoel Raimundo dos Anjos is no exception. “We know that working with the turtles is good for us, members of the community, and good for our children too,” he says.

Learn more about the Rio Trombetas Biological Reserve on this video.