By Adriana Boccalon Acosta
Despite being legally protected since 1946, an indefinite ban was decreed in 1962 and there is a program to reinforce its populations since 1992, illegal trade and the lack of environmental education keep the Arrau turtle threatened.
On April 29, 15 thousand hatchlings raised in captivity in the FUDECI zoo will be released in the Orinoco. Another 5,000 specimens will be released on June 17 in the Aguaro Guariquito National Park, in Guárico
The children had finished their homework, but did not want to go home. The teachers looked tired and they were still excited, even though the day had been intense.
While the zoocriadero was organizing the return of schoolchildren from the villages near their homes, the streets of Santa María del Orinoco began to fill with people. Whole families from different places came to the town, heading to the refuge area to locate on the premises of the Ministry of the Environment, a space to hang hammocks or set up the tent where they would spend the night.
The schoolchildren had attended a very special class outside the classroom that day. They had spent the day at the Arrau Tortoise farm in Puerto Ayacucho, 150 kilometers from the refuge, performing a very delicate task, because with their hands, and one by one, they had transferred from the Australian tanks to the plastic baskets of the guacal type, Thousands of turtles that would be released the following noon in La Playita del Orinoco, a sandbar that is exposed when the river's water level drops during the dry season, where 11 months ago the adult turtles spawned in their annual attempt for preserving the species.
That Friday, before nightfall and aboard several trucks, the hatchlings began their journey to the refuge, where visitors and onlookers, all allies, shared the eve of what could be considered the closure of an activity that takes place with much effort, to counteract the pressure that man has exerted since ancient times, reducing the chances of survival of the species Podocnemis expand, the largest freshwater chelonium in Latin America.
This species, better known to us as the Arrau Tortoise or Orinoco Tortoise, appears since 1995 in the Red Book of Venezuelan Fauna in the category of Critically Endangered species, despite the fact that its populations have been legally protected since 1946, which is It decreed an indefinite ban in 1962 and that in the country there is a program for its breeding in captivity since 1992.
Even so, every day the risk of the Arrau turtle disappearing, not only from the face of our territory but from other sectors of the Orinoquía, where no government or private initiative seems to have managed to end illegal trafficking, and with the culture of eating eggs and meat of this endangered species.
Illegal trade is fought by imposing controls and punishing the culprits, while in order to change a cultural pattern, awareness campaigns and environmental education are also required, especially in this case, in Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas state; Caicara del Orinoco in Bolívar state and Puerto Páez in Apure, the large populated centers closest to the Arrau turtle refuge.
Its meat is highly valued. An adult specimen of about 40 kilos, of which only 8 are edible, gets an owner for 250 thousand bolivars. In the Amazon, for example, it is said that only wealthy people can eat Arrau turtle meat, although it is not clear whether this classification is limited to those who are economically wealthy or if it includes those who wield political influence.
According to the Penal Law of the Environment, the capture or slaughter of an animal in danger of extinction is a crime that is punishable by jail; However, whoever buys, sells or consumes a species in such a situation will only be classified as an offender in legal terms, and the fine to be canceled, in the worst case, will not exceed 50 thousand bolivars.
Then a couple of unknowns arise, did inflation destroy the law? And are we carrying out a program to reinforce the species? Podocnemis expand in Venezuela or raising turtles to feed the population?
While these doubts are cleared, let's return to the Arrau turtle refuge. There, on the banks of the Orinoco, at a point between the mouths of two of its tributaries, the Parguaza River and the Cinaruco, in a hurry and amid the hubbub of foreigners, experts, biologists, National Guard and townspeople, they arrive from the zoocriadero the trucks with their valuable cargo, which the collaborators carefully place at the overnight site until the next day.
It is then, at noon, when this year 15 thousand Arrau hatchlings will be left free in their natural habitat, which due to the size and weight reached during their captivity in the zoocriadero of the Foundation for the Development of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, Fudeci, are now less palatable for a good group of aquatic fauna predators who prefer smaller pieces, even though the risk remains that man, out of ignorance, a spirit of contradiction or simply motivated by economic interests, is the one who attempts against the efforts being made in favor of the conservation of this critically endangered species.
Until last year, 205 thousand Arrau hatchlings had been released in the middle Orinoco. This is the record reached by the reinforcement program for this species initiated in 1992 by the Ministry of the Environment, an entity that two years later began to share that responsibility, to date, with the people of Fudeci. Currently, the Environment office manages the Arrau turtle refuge, is in charge of monitoring and managing nests, and monitoring the adult population, while Fudeci is responsible for raising the species in captivity, monitoring the released animals , dispersal and growth rate, and study the riparian population as a predatory factor of the species.
Until now, the Arrau tortoise reinforcement program is just hope without scientific results, as this species reaches its adult age at 25 years. It will be within a decade when researchers will be able to offer us concrete considerations.
Meanwhile, efforts to prevent its extinction are maintained, taking advantage of the fact that it is a reptile capable of laying more than 100 eggs per year and of storing embryos that allow it, in a single clutch, to have offspring of several males, a particularity that represents an evolutionary advantage that ensures greater genetic variety.
There are two other important aspects that facilitate captive breeding of the Arrau tortoise. One is that unlike mammals and birds, reptiles do not retain maternal bonds and that is why they can enter the world on their own, without any difficulty. The hatchlings will be released into their natural habitat and they will search for food to stay alive.
The fact that our protagonist spawns once a year in the same place and simultaneously with other females of her species, represented an advantage for the human predator who captured a good group of turtles with their eggs, with relatively little effort. This reality ended up becoming a point in favor of the program, as it is also easier to control the nesting and safeguarding process of the eggs, until the hatchlings are born and later transfer to the zoo.
The Arrau turtle is one of the few animals that has historical data in Venezuela, and that is precisely what has allowed us to know that it is a critically endangered species.
Many years ago, in March 1800, Alejandro Von Humboldt, a German naturalist and explorer, arrived in San Fernando de Apure to go up the Orinoco River from there, and scientifically verify if there was natural communication with the Amazon basin. During his wanderings he found the abundance of Arrau turtles near the Orinoco beaches. Their reviews indicate that the villagers not only ate it, but also traded the animal's oil as fuel for lighting.
Like a good scientist, Humboldt calculated how many eggs it took to fill a bottle of oil, estimating that in one year the eggs of 330 thousand nests were harvested in the middle Orinoco, equivalent to the same number of females.
Optimistic calculations by modern scholars indicate that there are only 1000 adult females left spawning each year to preserve the species. This means that the situation is critical and that the only way out is to impose the law and educate the people.
There are only a few days left for the release of the Arrau hatchlings. So, nothing better than to visit the people of Fudeci and talk with its director, Omar Hernández, so that he can expand on the details of this program, which on April 29 closes a new circle.
What we do, he says, is to try to avoid the high mortality of the species during its first days of life, since the females spawn precisely at the most critical time of the year, at the end of the drought, when the reserves of food for animals such as herons, hawks, foxes and fish, which see newborns as an option to satisfy hunger.
Luckily, it is easy to monitor females about to spawn, as they do it all together once a year in the same place, which allows to recruit many hatchlings at low cost. Hernández tells us that unlike other turtles, the Arrau only comes out of the water to sunbathe and later spawn at night, a dynamic that allows making the corresponding arrangements to supervise the nesting process.
The female can spend several hours making her nest. It is a slow process because each turtle digs with its hind legs to open a hole 80 centimeters deep in very loose sand. She then spawns, covers the nest, and returns to the river to copulate with her male to secure the next litter.
He relates that it is then that surveillance is activated in a special way in the refuge, to prevent the theft of the buried treasure that remains there for a couple of months until the incubation period is complete, when the round, soft-shelled, 5-centimeter eggs hatch. in diameter like pingpong balls, and hatchlings are born with 5 centimeters long and about 25 grams each, to be raised in captivity, and later released 12 centimeters and about 200 grams.
So far, the matter does not look complicated; however, sometimes our protagonists spawn very close to the shore. If the experts observe that the nests can be flooded with a flood of the river, they move them to the highest part of the beach as a preventive measure.
It is delicate work because the eggs of the Arrau turtle are very susceptible to handling. After the first 24 hours of spawning, the embryo attaches itself to the shell, and if the egg is turned, it falls off and dies. Furthermore, -Comments Hernández- each nest has to be moved, one by one, and sometimes we have more than a thousand. The work is exhausting. It is necessary to scratch around each nest at risk until it reaches the wet sand, otherwise it will collapse. Then, it must be lifted into a container and placed in the nest prepared by us.
In two months, the hatchlings are born and they are moved to the zoo in plastic baskets. There they will have their new habitat in Australian tanks or lagoons prepared for this purpose. To help them grow, they are offered fish food, with adequate protein content, and very complete in vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates.
Each hatchling raised in captivity has the first phalanx of a front leg amputated, to calculate its age and to know how much it grows over time. So far, the oldest recaptured animal is 10 years old. The estimates, using a mathematical model, indicate that the Arrau tortoise reaches adulthood at 25 years of age, which means that it will be more than a decade from now, when the females released at the beginning of the program will spawn.
Risks and Weaknesses
One of the risks that the Arrau turtle population reinforcement program runs, in Hernández's opinion, is the short-term mentality of our leaders, who generally only approve investments for projects that yield results that support official management.
This is not our case, he acknowledges, because rather the government's contributions have increased over the years, but it is always a risk that someone who is not interested in supporting this type of initiative comes to power, which in the end will only yield results within 100 years.
Regarding the weaknesses, Hernández notices failures in the inspection phase due to the lack of personnel in the nursery area, claiming that surveillance cannot be limited only to 20 kilometers from the refuge where the main nesting beach is. He points out that on occasions the turtle migrates in search of food and that specimens have been rescued 50 kilometers from the place of release, outside the refuge. This, he assures, must be extended to 100 kilometers to protect the species.
Another weakness that goes hand in hand with poor surveillance is the lack of effective awareness campaigns, both in the riverside communities and in the large population centers that consume the product. Analyzing the shells found in the rubbish dumps of the hamlets, Fudeci has determined that the local consumes Arrau tortoises in their juvenile age, about 29 centimeters long, which is the most abundant size.
With good reason, Hernández points out that while it is true that environmental education helps people understand that there is a problem, it does not necessarily guarantee that it complies with the rules. That is why, he says, there are police in all parts of the world.
If there is something capable of motivating the wills of heterogeneous groups, it is a noble cause, and you will be able to join one of these on April 29, when 15 thousand Arrau hatchlings will be released who will defend their right to life.
Getting to Santa María del Orinoco is a journey worth living, if the reason is to support the Arrau turtle reinforcement program. So if you dare to join us, I suggest you make your arrangements in advance. Whatever your starting point, as a geographical reference we will be located in San Fernando de Apure.
Take the road to the capital city and get to Puerto Páez, travel 9.5 kilometers and turn left taking a dirt road in good condition, to start a 57.5-kilometer journey until you reach Santa María del Orinoco. If you are adventurous, spend the night there in a hammock or tent, but if you prefer comfort, spend Friday night at an inn in Puerto Páez and travel to the refuge early Saturday.
The release of the Arrau hatchlings takes place at noon, in a kind of ritual where the emotion of those present requires, even, special vigilance by security officials, to prevent both adults and children from bagging something. exemplary protagonist, as if this were a souvenir.
The Arrau turtle population reinforcement program seeks to minimize the mortality rate of neonates
Populations of the expanding Podocnemis in the Orinoco basin are in critical danger of extinction