Protecting River Turtles From Potential Extinction

Traditionally, local communities surrounding Tahuamanu have consumed the eggs of Yellow-spotted river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis, commonly known as peta in Spanish) as an important protein source for their diet.

Photo of Yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis)However, with village expansion accelerating demand for these eggs as well as increasing river traffic damaging local basins, these turtles face increased pressures from loss of habitat and overharvesting. Plus, with the boom in globalization, the use of peta eggs has developed from a local tradition into a full-fledged illegal trade, as outsiders loot eggs on the beaches of local rivers to sell in large urban centers throughout Bolivia and across the border in Brazil and Peru. Because of these factors, the peta is now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN’s Red List) as a vulnerable species, likely to become threatened unless reproduction of the species improves and its habitat is better protected.

The Amazonian University of Pando – with support from our local sister organization Conservación Amazónica – ACEAA, the municipal government, and even the local Army brigade – has been leading conservation activities and research at Tahuamanu Biological Station to improve the incubation of river turtle eggs and increase survival rates of young hatchlings by delaying their release into the wild, all in order to increase the species’ chances of survival.

Tahuamanu Research Station
Tahuamanu Research Station

Although some aspects of these conservation efforts were happening before, it was not strategic nor scientific. It did not follow systematic data collection and recording practices and procedures, and there was no follow-up conducted on the young turtles once they were released back in the wild.

We helped build the capacity of the local biological station staff to understand how to collect and register field data, and the safe collection of eggs in the field. This included using geo-referencing to track the locations of eggs and turtle releases, as well as best practices in caring and transporting these species. Strengthening the capacity of local experts not only helps ensure that future collections and hatchings are scientifically measurable in order to improve and measure impact, but also empowers local people to better manage and control the full process of conservation of these species.

We also assisted the university and local staff at the biological station in purchasing the needed scientific equipment and supplies to implement these efforts, as well as helped host a community event to train a local Army brigade to aid the collection of 1,800 eggs from 50 turtle nests.

These eggs were collected from different sections along the Tahuamanu river. Following collection they Photo of Two Yellow-spotted river turtles (Podocnemis unifilis)are cared for by local staff at the station, hatching between 65-80 days after being laid. Once the eggs have hatched, the baby turtles are kept in conditioned water ponds to monitor their growth until they are large enough to be released into their natural habitat. Of this batch, 85% of the eggs were hatched.

We have already purchased the tagging equipment to “mark” these turtles so they can be monitored after their release, however, due to political unrest in Bolivia in late 2019 and the current COVID-19 global pandemic that has restricted mobility in the country, they have not yet been released back to the wild. They are, however, being fully cared for at the biological station and staff will release them once restrictions are lifted.

We still expect to carry out one more training event to teach staff and volunteers how to release the turtles and how to monitor the survival, dispersal, and growth of these turtles.

Special thanks to The Sheldon and Audrey Katz Foundation for their generous support that makes this project possible.

Amazon Fires: Providing help on-the-ground and from space

Cutting-edge technology and our supporters’ generosity aided firefighting efforts 

Smoke rising from 2019 Amazon fires A cloud of smoke covered hundreds of major cities all over Latin America in August as fires devastated over a million acres in the Amazon basin. The fires were so fierce and smoke so thick – covering major cities like São Paulo, Brazil for days – that they became front-page news and went viral on social media.

Employing the latest in satellite technology that we have been using to detect deforestation in the Amazon in real-time – through our Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) – we created 12 timely, fact-based analyses of the Satellite photo pinpointing fire from 2019 Amazon fires nature and location of the fires, as they happened. These reports gave local authorities the information needed so they could take action, and provided  the general public and the media up-to-date information on what was actually happening on the ground.

Our analysis was especially helpful in Bolivia, which was hit the hardest as standing forests within protected areas and critical habitats were burned, including the iconic Chiquitano dry forest. In Brazil, we discovered the fires were of a different nature, as they burned through forests that had been previously cleared for agricultural activities, and not standing forests as it was widely thought. These fires were a sign of a much bigger problem: rampant, unchecked deforestation.

Volunteer holding 50 fire protection vests

However, we were able to go far beyond monitoring. Thanks to the overwhelming support of concerned donors, we provided firefighting gear, tools and supplies, as well as water and food, to more than 100 Bolivian firefighters to battle the fires in 6 protected areas covering 17 million acres that were directly affected by the widespread fires. Since many of the fires were in remote locations, adding to the challenge, we also provided crucial support to mobilize firefighting brigades.

The fires have served as a reminder to us of the increasing threat fires bring to the Amazon’s forests. We have since started working more closely with governments and communities to increase fire prevention efforts and scale our approach to support fire-free development of the Amazon. 

This was a story from our 2019 Impact Report. Click here to read about other conservation successes from 2019.

Establishing Bolivia’s Largest Conservation Area

Supporting  local government and communities to protect 3.7 million acres of pristine forests, savannas, and wetlands.

Photo of Bajo Madidi

In 2019, we helped the local government of Ixiamas, Bolivia establish the Municipal Conservation Area of Bajo Madidi, an area spanning 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares). Three times the size of the Grand Canyon, this conservation area is the largest in Bolivia and one of the largest in the world. It hosts a variety of ecological landscapes including wetlands, lowland rainforests, and savannas.


Photo of Bolivia: Marsh deer
Marsh deer

Throughout the long and complex creation process, we provided the technical expertise and assistance to both the government and local communities that was needed to officially declare the area. We also helped them gather and understand key environmental data on the conservation needs of this landscape to develop the plan to protect it for the long-term. This conservation plan now guides the sustainable use and management of natural resources in Bajo Madidi.

Photo of Orinoco Goose
Orinoco goose

This area’s value lies in its major biological significance. While many savannas in Bolivia have been transformed by cattle ranching or road construction, the savannas within Bajo Madidi remain some of the most ecologically-intact savannas in the world. They are home to more than 20 endangered species such as the maned wolf, Orinoco goose, marsh deer, black-faced spider monkey, and the giant anteater, all categorized as “vulnerable” or “threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


The protected area will also protect the six rivers that flow through Bajo Madidi, safeguarding critical watersheds and aiding migration of birds, fish, and other animals that contribute to the overall rainforest health. Additionally, it will help maintain local The Madre de Dios River at sunset. communities’ sustainable harvesting of herbs, fruits, and nuts. This forest alone contains nearly 10% of the world’s Brazil nut trees under production. It also connects nearby nature reserves, creating an important biodiversity corridor of protected lands in the region.

The establishment of this area was a massive undertaking with contributions by local peoples and support from over 800 stakeholders. Successes like these are the foundation of our conservation efforts that have helped protect over 8.3 million acres of forests to date. 

This was a story from our 2019 Impact Report. Click here to read about other conservation successes from 2019.