Vulnerable river turtle populations are now recovering in Ecuador

Vulnerable river turtle populations are now recovering in Ecuador


In 2008, WCS Ecuador started working with nine Kichwa and Waorani indigenous communities and the Ministry of the Environment to protect charapa river-turtle populations in the Napo and Tiputini rivers in Yasuní National Park. Since then, community members have collected 20,685 yellow-spotted river-turtle eggs, incubated them in protected sandbox “nests”, and released 15,217 hatchlings back into the wild. As a result of their efforts, sightings of river turtles have increased 340% along the Napo River and 260% in the Tiputini River, and unauthorized collecting of eggs within the two largest turtle nesting sites has been reduced to zero.


Covering 9,820 km2, Yasuní National Park is the largest protected area in mainland Ecuador and one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. Yasuní is home to both Kichwa and Waorani indigenous communities, as well as Tagaeri and Taromenane families who prefer to remain uncontacted. Isolated from markets, these forest people depend on hunting, fishing, and gathering natural resources for almost all of their basic necessities. Two species of Charapa turtle (Podocnemis unifilis and P. expansa) are found in the rivers of Yasuní. They play important ecological roles as seed dispersers, are a source of food for other wildlife species and are a culturally important source of animal protein for indigenous communities. Scarcity of sandbanks for laying eggs and exceedingly high mortality of nestlings eaten by birds, large fish, and caiman soon after they hatch make river turtles vulnerable to overexploitation by egg collectors and capture and sale of juveniles for the pet trade. Since 2008, WCS has worked with Kichwa and Waorani communities to help restore Charapa river-turtle populations along the Napo and Tiputuni rivers. Community staff of the Charapa Turtle Conservation and Management Program monitor and safeguard the largest and most important nesting beaches, collect eggs from a sample of nests and incubate them in protected sandboxes within the villages, and conduct annual community events to release turtle hatchlings back into the Napo and Tiputini rivers. Program staff also conduct regular surveys of turtles along both rivers and share results with other communities to increase awareness and promote conservation.


Saving Species IconSPECIES: To evaluate the impact of our conservation activities, WCS with the support of Kichwa and Waorani communities and the National Park Service began monitoring the abundance of charapa turtles along the Napo and Tiputini rivers. In 2009, we recorded an average of 1.51 turtles/km in both rivers. By 2015, seven years into the program, surveys showed a 340% increase in river turtle sightings (5.13 sightings/km) along the Napo River, and a 260% increase (3.92 sightings/km) along the Tiputini River. In the 2017 nesting season, the six participating Kichwa communities collected 4,803 charapa turtle eggs from 153 nests. As of February 2017, 87% of the eggs had hatched (4,174 individuals) from their protected sandbox “nests” and were released back into the wild. This was a 20% increase in hatching success from 2015 and a 45% increase from 2009 the first year of the program. In two communities on the Tiputini River, community members also collected 170 Giant South American river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) eggs (2 nests), 119 of which hatched (a 70% success rate) and were later released.

Protecting Habitat IconHABITAT: During the last two nesting seasons (2015 & 2016), twelve WCS trained community members from six Kichwa communities protected the two largest nesting sites along the Napo and Tiputini rivers. As a result, during these two years, not a single river turtle nest was destroyed by poachers.

Effective Governance IconGOVERNANCE: With WCS support all six Kichwa communities used a participatory approach to develop and implement territorial management plans, which included specific strategies for wildlife (harvest quotas) and habitat (land use zoning) conservation. Nineteen park rangers from Yasuní National Park worked together with WCS to revise and update their approach to river-turtle conservation, implementing night patrols and supporting the community monitoring of human activity in the two largest nesting sites in northern Yasuní. Combined this collaboration of indigenous communities, civil society, and a government agency have improved governance of vulnerable river-turtle populations in the wild.

Securing Livelihoods IconLIVELIHOODS: Commercial collection of river-turtles and their eggs has been measurably reduced as a result of collaborative management by indigenous communities and the national park service. The Kichwa and Waorani people are now more aware of the importance of river-turtles in maintaining healthy aquatic environments, and are making progress in restoring healthy populations of both species of river-turtles. Recovery of turtle populations will enable the indigenous communities that are investing in turtle management to decide, in the future, whether or not to set community quotas for the sustainable harvest of turtles. To help offset the short-term loss of turtles as a culturally valued source of food, WCS has been supporting community efforts to develop alternative sources of animal protein that are ecologically sustainable, culturally acceptable, and “private” rather than open access public goods, such as improved backyard chicken production, and native species aquaculture.



Nine indigenous communities located in the northwestern area of the Yasuní National Park are involved in the Yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle community management program.


15 day old Charapa racing to the Napo River after being released into the wild.

Local kids releasing Charapas in the Napo River.

Local people collecting Charapa eggs in sandbanks along the Napo River.

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