Their paddles created ripples in the murky river, illuminated by a series of headlamps. For a minute, there was only the rhythmic sound of wood moving through water and the buzzing of thousands of insects in the dark jungle along the riverbanks.
Magaly Mendoza and her three crewmates, representatives from the Puerto Rico Municipal Conservation Area, were on a dawn patrol of the Orthon River, which snakes through the dense forests of Pando, Bolivia. For three days, the team spent afternoons, nights, and early mornings on the river and visiting local communities. On today’s patrol in late August 2023, they were searching for clandestine boats carrying a particular type of contraband: turtle eggs.
Around a bend in the river, muffled voices hung in the air, mingling with the dense humidity. Slowly, quietly, Mendoza and her crew approached the sounds. Their headlamps shone upon a small wooden boat, and something white caught their eyes behind its passengers. Eggs. Dozens of small eggs were thrown haphazardly into a pile in the back of the vessel. Next to the eggs were two slowly moving forms: yellow-spotted Amazon River turtles.
Mendoza and her boatmates sprang into action. Speaking loudly into the early morning darkness, they pulled the offenders over to the nearest shore and confiscated the trafficked eggs and adult turtles.
Their work, however, was not over.
Before the sun rose over the misty, sprawling forests of the Bolivian Amazon, the group of patrollers returned the adult turtles to the wild and deposited all of the eggs that were still viable—of which there were 68— in two nests on the riverbanks.
Bringing Back the Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle
The yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) is native to the basins of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. It can be found in five provinces of Bolivia, including Pando, where this story takes place. The second largest in its genus, these turtles can weigh between 20 and 26 lbs. (9 and 12 kg).
The yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle is an important indicator species of ecological conditions, due to its sensitivity to changes in its environment. Scientists often study the turtle to detect any variations in an ecosystem. The species also helps disperse seeds, which contributes to the health of the Amazon’s nutrient cycle.
During Bolivia’s dry season of August to September, these turtles dig shallow holes in sandy riverbanks, depositing anywhere between six and fifty-two eggs. The eggs must then incubate for two to three months before the baby turtles can waddle toward the river that will become their home.
Unfortunately, this species of turtle is considered vulnerable by the IUCN, primarily due to the large-scale trafficking of its eggs for human consumption. Although it is illegal under Bolivian law to remove the turtle or its eggs from the wild, it is still a common practice in the country— to the point where some Bolivian restaurants still have huevo de peta on their menu, as it is called in the region.
The Puerto Rico Municipal Conservation Area: A Chance to Save the Species
The Puerto Rico Municipal Conservation Area (MCA) was established in November 2020 in the northwestern department of Pando, Bolivia. Safeguarding over half a million acres (over 200,000 ha) of rainforest and expanding a massive ecological corridor, the MCA is home to iconic species like the giant armadillo, giant anteater, jaguar, crested eagle, the endangered Goeldi’s monkey, and the South American tapir.
Within the protected area are twenty communities whose lives are intertwined with the forest. Primarily belonging to the Tacana Indigenous ethnicity, these communities have played a central role in designing the MCA’s management strategy. Nearly 150 local people are involved in the long-term protection of the Puerto Rico MCA, including a 30-person management committee.
Magaly Mendoza and her crew: Lieutenant Arlin Roca, Sergio Vidal Humaday, and Abel Cuellar all belong to local committees dedicated to protecting the conservation area.
After their late August patrol, Mendoza, Roca, Humaday, and Cuellar met with the community of Palestina—home to the men they had reprimanded at dawn. They spent the afternoon speaking with Mrs. Rocío Tananta, a local member of the management committee, as well as several others in leadership roles within the community. At first, some worried that a crackdown on trafficking turtle eggs would hurt their economy and argued that eating these eggs was a traditional practice. However, further discussions yielded significant progress— the community was already making strides to create sustainable tourism infrastructure, as well as receiving assistance with the sustainable harvesting of non-timber crops, such as acai and Brazil nuts. They understood that the continued consumption and sale of these eggs would lead to the extinction of the species.
This discussion represents a challenge often faced in conservation: balancing tradition with the needs of the ecosystem.
Other Results from August’s Orthon River Patrol
In another major discovery, and in contrast to surrounding non-protected areas, Mendoza and her crew found zero evidence of active gold mining within the Puerto Rico Municipal Protected Area during their patrol. This is not only a victory for nature, but also for local communities. Gold mining degrades ecosystems and correlates with the release of mercury, a dangerous heavy metal, into waterways.
The Municipal Government of Puerto Rico and the local Tacana communities are instrumental in ensuring the longevity of the Puerto Rico MCA. Andes Amazon Fund partners with the NGO Conservación Amazónica (ACEAA) on this project, who provide continued on-the-ground technical assistance for the management of Puerto Rico, including equipment and support for community patrols like this one.