Saving the sea turtles in Brazil Ecology: Conservationists have made tourism the keystone of a project dedicated to protecting endangered species.

Sun Journal

November 23, 1998|By Katherine Ellison | Katherine Ellison,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PRAIA DO FORTE, Brazil -- Sea turtles used to mean no more to Ulisses Santana, a skinny fisherman in this small coastal village, than an occasional hot meal and a bit of shark bait.

Today he reveres them. Two large concrete turtles mark the path to the small house he built selling papier-mache turtles to U.S. and European tourists who flock here by the thousands. On most afternoons, you can find the former predator slopping strips of newspaper over a turtle-shaped mold.

"Turtles have become a big part of my life," Santana, 47, says solemnly. "Today, if I or any other fisherman sees a turtle sick on the shore, we stop and try to help it."

Santana's ecological conscience comes thanks to the dogged efforts of a pioneering project called Tamar -- short for "tartaruga marinha," Portuguese for "sea turtle."

Dedicated to saving the five endangered species of sea turtles that nest on Brazil's Atlantic Coast, Tamar has won international raves for its achievements.

In the past 18 years, Tamar employees have helped release 2.8 million turtle hatchlings to the sea. They've re-educated hunters who once raided nests, supervised a growing tourist industry, drawn key government and business support, and made the huge, clumsy sea turtle a lovable and even trendy figure in Brazil.

Last year, Tamar shared the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Award with two Asian groups. Brazilian Environment Minister Gustavo Krause has praised it as "a landmark in the history of Brazilian marine conservation."

Sea turtles have been on Earth for about 150 million years, having proved hardier than dinosaurs. But experts believe the population has been reduced by half since the 1970s, mostly because of unrestricted poaching.

Today, seven of the world's eight known species of sea turtles are considered endangered.

Female turtles are easy prey when they leave the sea by night to nest. Every three years or so, they return faithfully to the same stretch of coastline, even if it means traveling thousands of miles.

The lumbering creatures, which can weigh 1,000 pounds or more, fall into a kind of trance, ignoring the danger from hunters eager to devour their meat and eggs and sell their shells for jewelry.

To help protect the vulnerable giants, Tamar oversees 620 miles of coastline north and south of Praia do Forte, with 400 residents on the payroll as part-time beach monitors.

Throughout the nesting season, each monitor takes charge of about two miles of beach, watching over eggs where they are laid or, if the nests are vulnerable to animals or birds, taking them to hatcheries.

Praia do Forte, 750 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro, is the home of Tamar's headquarters and the largest of its 21 stations along the coast.

A visitors center, with a museum and several turtles in tanks, receives 300,000 guests each year, many of whom buy turtle paraphernalia -- T-shirts, hats, shorts, key chains and stuffed animals -- made by residents.

Tamar's founders, husband and wife oceanographers Neca and Guy Guagni dei Marcovaldi, are considering expanding their tourist trade. Environmentalists are watching to see if they can create a $5 million sea turtle theme park in this fishing village of 2,000 people without sacrificing their ecological values.

Eco-tourism can be a tricky business. In recent years, tour operators have stuck the label on everything from simple nature walks to huge resorts to ecologically incorrect rides on dolphin-chasing speedboats.

In Praia do Forte, blessed with beautiful beaches, coral reefs and natural pools, eco-tourism seems a natural and profitable choice. Although the streets remain unpaved, 15 hotels and several restaurants have sprouted up to serve travelers attracted by the turtles.

The revenue has won over former predators such as Santana, the papier-mache craftsman, and Antonio Vasconcellos, 62, a fisherman whose eyes still gleam at the memory of turtle stew.

"It was truly delicious, but this is better," Vasconcellos says. "Today I never have trouble selling my fish." Moreover, he said, all 12 of his children are working at tourism-related jobs.

Mary Wallace, a camera-toting mother of three from San Antonio, supports environmental causes in the United States. When I heard about Tamar, she says, "I made sure we made time for a visit." She drove 50 miles north from the city of Salvador. "I was really impressed by the way they provide an alternative livelihood for the fishermen."

Until 1977, most Brazilians had no idea that turtles nested on their shores. That year, Guy Marcovaldi, then a university student, photographed a slaughter by poachers on the northeastern beach of Atol das Rocas.

"There was blood all over the beach. It was shocking," he says. He sent the pictures to a national news magazine, and the military government responded by commissioning him and a colleague to survey the coastline.

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