hawksbill sea turtle

Every two to three years, adult female hawksbills return to nest on the beaches where they were born. (Photo: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

Hawksbill sea turtles can be found in tropical waters worldwide, but not very easily. Their global population has fallen more than 80 percent in the past century, due to poaching for their eggs and their beautifully patterned shells as well as beachfront development and entanglement in fishing gear.

Staging a comeback is often difficult for endangered wildlife, especially slow-paced species like hawksbills, which only mate every two to three years and take decades to reach sexual maturity. But thanks to a long game of turtle conservation being played in Nicaragua, these ancient reptiles are finally bouncing back in that Central American nation — part of a broader comeback among Caribbean hawksbills that hints at how local human communities often hold the key to preventing extinctions.

In Pearl Cays, a group of 18 islands off Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, hawksbills are reaping the benefits of a 15-year conservation project led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The species' nest count in Pearl Cays has risen 200 percent since the project began, from 154 in 2000 to 468 in 2014. Poaching is also down at least 80 percent, with 2014 marking the lowest poaching rate in the project's history. And now that fewer poachers steal the turtles' eggs, nest success has averaged 75 percent this year. More than 35,000 hawksbill hatchlings reached the sea by December, according to WCS.


hawksbill sea turtle

Photo: BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

Hawksbills are typically found near healthy coral reefs, where the opportunistic omnivores feed on sponges as well as fish, jellyfish, mollusks, crustaceans, sea urchins and marine algae. Their preference for sponges can make their meat harmful to humans, since sponges often contain toxic compounds that accumulate in the turtles' tissues. That hasn't prevented large-scale poaching of hawksbills, however, with poachers often more interested in their eggs and shells than their meat.

The species now enjoys widespread legal protection around the world, yet enforcement remains a challenge in some of the 70 countries where it has historically nested. Before the WCS began its Hawksbill Conservation Project in 2000, for example, a study found that nearly 100 percent of hawksbill nests in Pearl Cays were poached and most eggs were taken for human consumption.

On top of working with local residents to convey the unsustainable scale of this poaching, WCS helped establish the Pearl Cays Wildlife Refuge in 2010, which protects nesting, feeding, breeding and migratory areas for sea turtles as well as key habitats for other wildlife. Hawksbills still face plenty of man-made dangers — including plastic debris that resembles food or lost fishing nets that become death traps — but less poaching and habitat loss can nonetheless make a significant difference.

Hawksbill sea turtle hatchling

Photo: schrojo/Shutterstock

The rebound of hawksbills in Nicaragua is part of a broader positive trend seen in several parts of the Caribbean, namely Antigua, Barbados, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This correlates with protective measures at critical nesting sites, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as decreased hunting at nearby foraging grounds.

While an international ban on the trade of sea turtle parts has also helped curb global demand for their shells, WCS says its recent success in Nicaragua was only possible once local communities understood what was happening to turtle populations and joined the effort to protect them.

"These recent nest counts show that by working with local communities, we can save sea turtles from extinction," says Caleb McClennen, WCS director of marine conservation, in a statement. "Communities partnering with WCS are directly involved with safeguarding their own natural resources. Without their help and commitment, this project would fail, and Nicaragua's hawksbill turtles would be doomed."

To learn more about the project, and to see footage of baby hawksbills, check out this WCS video:

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.