Nesting season is beginning again in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park, home to one of the world’s largest green turtle (Chelonia mydas) populations, as well as a haven for more than half the world’s species of large marine turtles. Costa Rica was a leader in conservation efforts, establishing the park and limiting human contact with the turtles as far back as 1970. The chief natural enemies of the green turtle are only large sharks, and humans. At least until recently. The turtles are a favorite of conservationists and eco-tourists alike. In marketing terms, they are considered a flagship species, i.e. “a species used as the focus of a broader conservation marketing campaign based on its possession of one or more traits that appeal to the target audience” (Wikipedia definition).
The first sanctuary for the jaguar (Panthera onca) was established in Bélize in 1986, although conservation efforts had begun earlier in response to the decimation of the species during the 1960s and 70s. Jaguars are considered an ‘umbrella’ species, i.e. “a species with large area requirements for which protection of the species offers protection to other species that share the same habitat – usually higher vertebrates” (Wikipedia again). Jaguars roam over large areas and there is a proposal, the Paseo del Jaguar, to establish safe jaguar corridors between protected habitats stretching from Mexico to Argentina to support the stability and robustness of the big cat population.
The chief threat to jaguars at this point is not hunting any more (trade in pelts is illegal, although in some countries sport hunting is still legal), but loss of habitat due to farming. This has become more pressing with the growth of livestock farms for meat production – not only does this encroach on habitat, but jaguars are drawn to the livestock and then eliminated. Jaguars, like most endangered big cats, inspire conservationists and donors alike. They are also considered a flagship species.
Last year, a report was published detailing how loss of habitat and availability of prey in Costa Rica had driven jaguars closer to the coastline around Tortuguero National Park, where they presumably discovered the ease and delight of dining on green turtles during nesting season.
It’s easy enough to draw battle lines between those who want to expand human territory and those who want to preserve natural territory. Even the most collaborative of conservation projects will find itself at odds with the economic needs and desires of other humans at some point.
But what about the territories staked out by conservation efforts themselves? It’s not just about the animals or the habitats – it’s about competition for the limited span of awareness most people have for conservation issues and the amount of funding required for research and donor drives. What to do when two flagship species collide? I can say with certainty that if I were one of the conservationists directly involved with the protection of either of these species, my natural inclination would be to dig in my heels and fight for my side. Competition and staking out our territory is what we do, whether it’s on the playground, in the board room or on a beach full of jaguars and turtles. It seems to be our natural inclination, even when we know there won’t be any winners if what we draw are battle lines rather than chart paths to one another.
The report states that it “…is important to manage not only the ecological and behavioural interactions between these species but also the relationships between stakeholders such as local communities, conservation organizations and foreign donors. Management strategies need to take into account the human context and be eﬀectively communicated to all relevant stakeholders.”
I searched for more recent information as to what new management strategies might look like for the Tortuguero clash of species, but have been thus far unsuccessful in finding any new publications. According to Mr. Diogo Verissimo, lead author of the jaguar-turtle report, this topic is currently being researched at Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), University of Kent, UK.
So: this might be a good conservation challenge – overcoming our own competitive nature where it does more harm than good.
Jaguar (Panthera onca) predation of marine turtles: conflict between flagship species in Tortuguero, Costa Rica – D. Verissimo, D.A. Jones, R. Chaverri, S.R. Meyer
Mr. Verissimo’s webpage is: http://www.diogoverissimo.com/