The Nature Conservancy‘s Autumn 2010 publication features a vignette about the river turtle as a “cultural icon” for many Amazonian indigenous groups of northern Brazil. Known locally as trajaca, the tribal communities of the Oiapoque region have noticed declining populations of turtles in the past decade. The absence of river turtles poses not only a threat to the natural heritage of the area, but also to the indigenous populations who make the turtle a key element of their cultural identity.
For many of these cultural groups the river turtle is a cherished symbol of long-held traditions. The humble, unassuming creature is the stuff of legends to the people of the Amazon, preserved in native myths, artworks, and indeed special recipes. Elements of their identity are intimately tied to the turtle’s existence, and thus extinction very well poses a threat to the preservation of traditional cultures in the region. Their designation as a “Vulnerable” species demonstrates a proven concern for natural conservationists and cultural conservationists alike.
The short article highlights a conservation initiative in which scientists and villagers are working together to help stop the animal’s decline:
In September, when turtles lay their eggs, [they] locate several nests and gently dig up the contents. They carry the eggs back to the villages and bury them within protected pens. In December, when the hatchlings emerge, families temporarily adopt them and house them in plastic tubs. The children take on most of the work in caring for the turtles, feeding them fishmeal and bananas and taking them for supervised ‘walks’ [my emphasis]…Families in the villages travel by boat to take the animals to their nesting grounds. There the children release their little charges into the wild.
According to the project’s statistics, between 2006 and 2008 more than 770 turtles were hatched, nurtured, and released. The youth-led initiative towards primary care of the trajaca has been important in Amazonian communities. Paulo Roberto da Silva, of the Galibi-Marworno ethnic group, said, “We want to have the trajaca here in our land for future generations.” Preservation of the young turtles has engendered preservation of traditions in the younger generations.
The Nature Conservancy’s collaboration with locals in the river turtle recovery program highlights the connection between the preservation of natural and cultural heritage and the mutual appreciation of these heritage symbols. In practice here is a constructive example of joint stewardship efforts towards heritage management goals. Scientists and natives have found agreeable solutions for long-term preservation and sustainability of heritage resources. In the most biodiverse part of our planet, the Amazon, it is rewarding to find a success story with implications for our species’ universal natural and cultural heritage.