Camila Ferrara is an aquatic turtle specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Brazil Programme. Here she tells us about her ground-breaking work to conserve Brazil’s most threatened river turtles.
Years ago in the Brazilian Amazon, I was exposed to an unexpected but prevalent philosophy for how humans viewed animals. To the indigenous riverine people I encountered, an animal’s primary purpose was for food. Many of these people had never considered that such animals could become extinct. This perspective both scared and motivated me.
I made the decision to move to Manaus in the Amazon and have since devoted myself to working with science colleagues and local communities to conserve wildlife, especially turtles. Since the time of the Portuguese Empire, Amazonian turtles have been an important source of protein in the Amazon, but due to the uncontrolled consumption of their eggs and meat, turtles are now among the most threatened animals in the region.
Turtles that “talk”
Studying the reproductive behaviour and sexual selection of red-headed Amazon River turtles (Podocnemis erythrocephala), one of the five most endangered species in the Amazon, fuelled my interest in these species and I began research on the acoustic communication of giant South American River turtles (Podocnemis expansa).
During this study, my colleagues and I found that these aquatic turtles use several different kinds of vocal communication. After two years collecting 2,122 vocalizations we realized the turtles were using sounds to coordinate social behaviours, including female turtles calling to newly hatched offspring. Such communication begins as early as the turtles’ embryonic stage, about 36 hours before the babies leave their eggs. This discovery led to a second, as this is the first time scientists have identified post-hatchling parental care in turtles.
We also discovered that hatchlings call to synchronize their births as well to their mothers, and adults call to synchronize reproductive behaviour when migrating to common nesting and feeding areas. We are now developing a growing body of evidence that suggests that sound is essential for this species to exchange information.
Can river turtles be saved?
These new findings are supporting and strengthening conservation models for the river turtles, now considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Since 2013, I have worked for WCS Brazil as an aquatic wildlife ecologist with an emphasis on saving the Podocnemididae family of turtles. This family is not only native to northern South America but also Madagascar. It includes the giant South American River turtle, the red-headed Amazon River turtle, the yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle, the six-tubercled Amazon turtle and the big-headed side neck turtle, the most commercialized species in the Amazon.
Amazon turtles are a major source of protein for riverine communities, but turtle dishes are also very popular in northern Brazil. There are now laws prohibiting people from eating turtles but demand has not ceased, particularly in big cities.
Early in my work in the Amazon, I had the opportunity to develop a turtle conservation project in the Unini River, a tributary of the Rio Negro in Brazil. The purpose of the project was to implement a conservation programme for freshwater turtles at breeding sites. The project was funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and I received their support to help develop my project and undergo training in Beijing, China.
In addition to studying the Rio Negro turtles, I worked with youngsters in the region to teach them about the importance of conservation. Five years after completing the project, people still remember and understand the unique role of turtles in their environment. Recently CLP also supported me again with a scientific writing course in São Paulo, Brazil.
Through turtle population monitoring, beach management and environmental education work in the Abufari Biological Reserve (located in the Purus River, another tributary of the Amazon) my colleagues and I at WCS are now helping protect the largest turtle reproduction area in the Amazonas. Incorporating an important waterway connecting the western Amazon to Manaus, the reserve hosts nearly 2,000 nesting females annually, a number that has remained steady in the last few years.
In several protected areas along the nearby Negro River, monitoring involves local residents as their involvement is essential to conservation. Working with all ages we educate people in these areas about the importance of biodiversity, building upon local traditions with the aim of shrinking the turtle trade.
I am just beginning my career as a conservationist and while it may take years, one day I hope to see the status of turtle populations in the Amazon move from declining to stable and hopefully, expand. To get there requires more than my work; the next generation of conservationists in the Amazon region will need inspiration to become more aware of the environment and to have respect for the myriad of species here. Without this, conservation cannot continue.