WildHope Digital Magazine WildHope Fall 2012 : Page 26

CENTRAL AMERICA’S By Brad Nahill “Time to get up, you’re going to miss the light!” The words pulled me out of a deep but brief sleep on the first day of my visit to Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador. To call my condition at that moment disoriented would be an understatement. Luckily, I managed to gather my thoughts quickly enough not to fall out of my hammock onto the sand. The wake-up call came from Alexander Gaos, executive director of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (known by its Spanish acronym, ICAPO) and a driving force behind one of the world’s most exciting sea turtle conservation programs. We had spent most of the previous night looking for hawksbill turtles around the bay; an hour before daylight, we had arrived at the ICAPO hatchery, where I’d found an empty hammock and managed a short nap. The hatchery is a key tool that ICAPO uses to protect turtles, a safe place where the eggs can be watched under optimal conditions until they hatch. I pulled out my camera and went to meet three female hawksbills that the local staff was holding in preparation for their role in a scientific research program. After a few minutes, we learned that hatchlings had recently emerged and were about to be released into the bay. Once I had reached the limits of my companions’ patience for taking photos of one sleepy hatchling, we hopped in a boat to head back to our base, the small island of La Pirraya. It wasn’t long ago that many sea turtle experts assumed there were too few hawksbill turtles along the Pacific coast of the Americas to bother protecting. A report from the conservation group Oceana in 2007 stated matter-of-factly that “population levels are so low that scientists rarely encounter them.” One reason for this was the assumption that hawksbills in this region would live almost exclusively around coral reefs, as they do just about everywhere else in the world. This coast has relatively few reefs; therefore, scientists believed, there must be fewer turtles. In addition, no beaches along this coast had been identified as major hawksbill nesting sites, making it even more difficult to estimate population size. 26 Alexander and his wife Ingrid weren’t so sure the gloomy population estimates were correct. In 2008 they began researching hawksbills in Baja California, Mexico, and talking to other turtle conservationists in the region. Around that time, they met Michael Liles, a turtle researcher and now director of ICAPO-El Salvador, who had recently discovered the hawksbill nesting in Jiquilisco Bay during a nationwide beach survey. Determined to find additional nesting sites, the trio organized a meeting in El Salvador and invited turtle conservationists from around the region. One who attended was José Urteaga, Nica-ragua Coordinator at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), who reported another potential nesting site in northwestern Nicaragua. These two nesting areas, less It wasn’t long ago that many sea turtle experts assumed there were too few hawksbill turtles along the Pacific coast of the Americas to bother protecting. Photo: Brad Nahill

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