PEARL ISLANDS, PANAMA

“It was 8:00 pm on January 9th, 2015, a day that will always be embedded in my memory. I woke to the words “Baula baula baula!” getting increasingly louder outside my window at the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge field station. An adult leatherback sea turtle female, una baula, had begun emerging to lay her eggs on the beach just about half a mile from the station. I saw my first dinosaur-like turtle haul her massive, leathery body onto the sand. Exhaling with groaning breaths, reminiscent of the Cretaceous period, I could feel my eyes expand, wet with tears of awe. In past seasons, field teams would have witnessed several leatherback nesting events between the months of January and March. Due to the devastation of the critically endangered Eastern Pacific (EP) leatherback subpopulation, however, this was the only nest that was laid during that time period in 2015. I realized then that I was personally witnessing the extinction trajectory of a species that has lived for over 100 million years.”

Callie Veelenturf, Founder
 
 

Funding from the National Geographic Society will lead Grantee, Callie Veelenturf (Leatherback Project Founder), to Isla del Rey, the Pearl Islands, Panama to study new sea turtle nesting sites, human use of turtles, and fisheries bycatch. Verbal reports indicate that Isla del Rey not only provides nesting habitat for olive ridley and green sea turtles but also for leatherback turtles. This has yet to be officially confirmed or denied. The funded project will be the first of its kind in the Pearl Islands. Apart from providing baseline data, the project will elucidate the history of human use of sea turtles, inform regional population estimates and develop strategies for conservation solutions.

 
 

The drastic decline of the EP leatherback within the past three decades have been primarily due to fisheries bycatch, poaching, and climate change, leaving the subpopulation listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Redlist. The most recent IUCN population estimate (2013) was 633 total individuals, and current projections estimate that by the year 2040, there will be only 30 adults in the subpopulation. Only seven of these will be egg-laying females, which represents a 99.9% reduction in the subpopulation and represents functional extinction. Population size is estimated using the number of nesting females at the nesting beaches, internesting intervals, generation times (~30 years), and the persistence of threats. Having an accurate and expansive understanding of the number of nesting individuals in the region is therefore vital to understanding the health of the subpopulation and priorities for conservation. To date, potential leatherback nesting habitat along the Pacific coast of Panama has not been surveyed on-the-ground. Through initial research I have uncovered reports of several nesting sites, including three beaches on Punta Coco, lsla del Rey, the Pearl islands.

 
 

Based on preliminary interviews with community members from the Pearl Islands and long-time residents, leatherback nesting is yearly and poaching events are common. Poaching is not only of nesting individuals, but also of sea turtles caught while foraging in the gulf of Panama. It has been reported that sea turtle meat is sold for about $1.50 USD per pound in the local market. Increased beach temperatures and erosion are already decreasing the reproductive output of sea turtles globally. In order to prevent EP leatherback extirpation, we must document all nesting grounds and institute proper protection measures. This project is part of a larger investigation to provide insights for expansive leatherback protection throughout the EP. Beach, fisheries and community survey results will lay the groundwork for protection of all sea turtle species found on the island. Through collaborating with the local community, we will be able to unearth the turtle history of the islands and how development can move forward sustainably to support both the local islanders and endangered wildlife. Our field season is October 2019-March 2020. Stay tuned for updates throughout the preparation process and from the field!