Costa Rica Sea Turtle Conservation Project

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A program to aid local environmental projects has taken a big step forward with the decision to aid the Matapalo Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Project by helping fund the work of the Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas in Costa Rica.

The ASVO is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization that promotes environmental conservation and education through volunteer participation and has been recognized by the Costa Rican Government for its work with the youth of Costa Rica and visiting international students by providing “hands-on” education while they work to save ecologically sensitive areas.

For more than 16 years ASVO has been working in Costa Rica and it’s volunteers have played an active part in working in the nearly 25% of the country’s area that has been set aside for nature conservation. You can find ASVO volunteers donating their time in many of Costa Rica’s National Parks wildlife preserves plus a number of other projects; annually there are some 1,500 volunteers striving to make a difference here.

The Sea Turtle Conservation Project in Matapalo began in the 1990’s when a group of students from the Professional Technical School of Matapalo teamed up with different community members to develop an initiative to protect marine turtle nests from poachers and some natural predators.

In 2005, the local organization began coordinating with the ASVO,and the Developers of Hacienda Matapalo which were able to supply volunteers in the form of college students from both Costa Rica and abroad,. Most of the students worked on the project for 15 day periods under the supervision of biologists, helping construct fencing around nest areas and collecting eggs from isolated nests, then transferring them to protected areas (eggs that otherwise might be robbed by “hueveros” who would sell the turtle eggs-a practice prohibited by law).

On nights when marine turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, volunteers patiently wait as the turtles dig their nests, while egg laying takes place the turtles are measured and fitted with numbered i.d. bracelets so they can be tracked for migratory purposes. When the eggs are transferred to the new protected nests, they are identified according to species, the number of eggs, and the date of egg-laying. From then on the new nests are watched day and night. The work of monitoring the Matapalo Beach nests falls under the jurisdiction of the National System of Area Conservation which is part of the Ministry of Atmosphere and Energy.

Turtles that lay eggs on Matapalo Beach

The Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), the Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricatta) and the Black turtle of the Pacific (Chelonia mydas agassizi) all visit Playa Matapalo, and all are in danger of extinction.

The Olive Ridley turtle is smallest of the marine turtles. The adults measure of 55 to 70 cm in length in their shell, with a gross weight of 35 to 45 kg Reach their sexual maturity between the 10 and 15 years and probably live about 50 or 60 years, nevertheless they are reproductively active by only a little more than 21 years. The season of egg-laying mainly for the dark-brown turtle initiates about the 1st of June and it extends until the 30th of November of every year.

They deposit an average of 110 eggs by nest and the period of incubation runs 46 to 65 days, depending on the temperature. Olive Ridley’s are famous for their mass beaching when literally dozens upon dozens of females come ashore to lay. The females return every one to two years. A same turtle can lay eggs up to 2 times each season, in an interval of 17 to 28 days.

The Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate) are most commonly found in hard-bottomed and reef habitats containing sponges.. They also reside in shoals, lagoons of oceanic islands, and continental shelves. In general, they are found in water no deeper than sixty feet (18.3 m). When hawksbill turtles are young, they are unable to dive into deep water, and therefore are forced to live in masses of floating sea plants, such as sargassum. Mating for mature hawksbill’s occurs about every two years and the females always return to the beach where they originally hatched.

The Black Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassizi) is closely related to the common Green Sea turtle, but it is slightly smaller with weights ranging from 150 to 280 pounds. Their range is the tropical eastern Pacific and nesting areas can be found along the Central American coast and they are the only species of turtle to be found nesting in the Galapagos Islands.

Marine turtles return to lay eggs to the same beach of their birth once they reach sexual maturity. Exactly how the turtle know which beach is the right one is most likely a combination of smell and some sort of internal tracking (we asked and they aren’t talking). Once the eggs hatch the baby turtles dig their way out of the shallow nests and head into the sea.

According to Hacienda Matapalo data taken between 2005 and 2008, 900 turtles were registered at Matapalo Beach; altogether 42,743 eggs have been protected and 35,794 baby turtles (tortuguitas) were freed. In spite of the monitoring taking place, it is expected that about 20% eggs laid on the beaches of Costa Rica are extracted by the egg poachers. Natural predators include wild pigs, coati, and birds.

Threats by man

The populations of turtles can survive the natural threats, but the intervention of man has brought about a noticeable acceleration in the loss of the populations. The main threats by man are the alteration of the turtles habitat: the egg extraction for consumption or commerce, pollution, urban development in coastal zones with an increase of artificial light in nesting areas; plus the incidental capture in commercial fishing operations and finally egg depredation by domestic animals such as dogs and feral cats.

Through sponsorship from Hacienda Matapalo the marine turtle project has been supplied with all of the materials and equipment to construct secure nesting areas. In addition the expense for maintaining the manpower for its construction was covered as well. The breeding ground has an area of 200 square meters (over 2,100 square feet) which will house about 200 nests for this season.

Also, Hacienda Matapalo has donated funds for the purchase of instruments and software for recording the data for soil and water temperatures and the relative humidity of the nests with the aim of determining how these factors influence the sex of the turtle hatchlings. These instruments will allow us to monitor about 30 nests for a period of about two months, which covers the time line from egg laying to hatching. Over the entire season about 60 nests will be monitored.

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