Reptile lovers like me have long been fascinated by the charapa, the largest river turtle in South America, which was once common throughout the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. In the 19th century, explorer and father of biogeography Alexander von Humboldt wrote in his chronicles that the beaches of Brazilian and Venezuelan rivers were black with nesting charapas.

The charapa Podocnemis expansa.

At that time, the river and beaches in the vicinity of a single town could harbour up to 300,000 giant river turtles, which have long played an important role in ecosystems and as an important food source for riverine communities. However, despite this historical abundance, today’s numbers are much lower. The turtles and their eggs have been overexploited, with habitat loss and environmental degradation further speeding their decline.

Although conservation of the charapa began in the 1960s these early efforts were not well documented, and the species remains threatened. Current numbers are largely unknown because of insufficient monitoring and a lack of documentation. Luckily, this illustrious inhabitant of the continent has now captured the attention of the regional scientific community.

 

Charapas basking on the river bank.

Today, in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, and specifically in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, there are at least 85 initiatives promoting the conservation of the charapa. Records show that these programmes and projects are protecting or managing more than 147,000 females, an unprecedented figure.

I am pleased that these widespread efforts are being recognized in a new article that will serve as an important reference for this work: ‘On the future of the giant South American river turtle Podocnemis expansa’ is the result of a collaborative effort of 29 authors from across the species’ range who came together following a workshop on the turtle’s status and protection, in Balbina, Brazil.

Charapas sunning themselves on a riverine beach.

Park rangers, Indigenous groups, and conservationists from all six countries participated in the workshop, providing information on their work to protect the charapa. The most encouraging aspect of the meeting was the clear commitment of public and private entities to the species, with both monitoring and continued collaboration with communities that depend on the charapa.

One of our important findings, after reviewing data from nine localities for which there are extensive historical records, is that charapa populations do not show consistent trends across their six range countries; rather, turtle populations are increasing in some areas and are stable or decreasing in others.

 

Close-up of the charapa.

It is crucial, therefore, to maintain accurate records through community monitoring in all of these river basins. For example, conservation is crucial in the Guaporé or Iténez River, between Bolivia and Brazil, which is home to more than 40,000 turtles. This and other areas need to be prioritized for ongoing monitoring, so that we can obtain reliable information on the species and continue to develop regional strategies for its conservation.

Sunset on the Meta river near Santa María de La Virgen (Arauca department).

Our article in Oryx is part of this process. We hope that it promotes conservation efforts and demonstrates the need to create a network to protect the charapa. We need a regional monitoring programme that recognizes individual efforts yet seeks to refine teamwork and serve as an axis to link and provide information and technical support to projects throughout the charapa’s range.

Brazil is already working to implement a national turtle monitoring programme, and we believe a similar model could be expanded internationally.

Newly hatched charapa.

It is especially important to recognize the role of the communities that live among important turtle populations and that often serve as their principal carers. People living in these riparian zones hope to control consumption of the turtles’ eggs and meat and prevent large-scale commercialization, aiming to promote the sustainable use of the species both as a source of food and as an important part of their culture. Some of the most successful turtle protection projects already involve local communities in monitoring and protecting nesting beaches. We are optimistic that our article, combined with these ongoing conservation initiatives, can help protect this wonderful reptile for many generations to come.

All photos by Mauricio ‘Pato’ Salcedo, Wildlife Conservation Society.

The article ‘On the future of the giant South American river turtle Podocnemis expansa’ is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

 

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0030605318001370



Forero Medina has previously studied the ecology of the white-throated mud turtle Kinosternon scorpioides albogulare on the island of San Andrés, Colombia, small marsupials of the Atlantic Forest and functional connectivity in the landscapes where they live, and elevational range shifts of birds in tropical mountains as a consequence of climate change. He has led multiple initiatives for the conservation of threatened vertebrates in the tropics, particularly freshwater turtles.