A community-led conservation project is saving endangered hawksbill sea turtles from extinction in Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador. Ani Henríquez is the Executive Director of ProCosta, the organization behind this great effort, getting her boots wet, one turtle rescue at a time.
Love at first sight
While on a field trip studying biology in 2000, Henríquez saw her first sea turtle. In an instant, she realized her fascination with the animal, their habitat, and their preservation.
Receiving a master’s degree in Natural Protected Areas from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain, Henríquez has since devoted her life to conservation. She has worked with sea turtles for over a decade, focusing on critically endangered species, promoting alliances with key stakeholders, and creating sustainable tourism in local areas.
At ProCosta, powered by Wild Earth Allies, Henríquez and her team work with communities to conduct research, protect habitats, and safeguard hawksbill turtles. Locals take on the role of beach patrollers, finding turtle nests and relocating the eggs to ProCosta’s safe hatchery center.
Without the community’s help, Henríquez says the project would not be possible. Human consumption of eggs has been the most significant threat to the species, and as more locals get involved in conservation efforts, this narrative is changing.
Hawksbills help people
El Salvador is one of two countries in the Eastern Pacific with the highest rates of nesting activity of hawksbill turtles, along with Nicaragua. Jiquilisco Bay is now home to 45% of these nesting females. However, this wasn’t always the case. Before local conservation action, the turtle was thought to be extinct in the area.
What it took to achieve this conservation success was to align with the community and spread awareness. Henríquez has worked tirelessly to teach locals that by helping the hawksbills, they can improve education for their families, jobs, and quality of life, no longer needing the turtle egg black market to provide for them.
When allowed to breed and live unthreatened, hawksbill sea turtles improve the environment by grazing on seagrass meadows and eating sponges. This diet prevents the grasses from growing too long and suffocating on themselves and giving corals the chance to flourish without invasive sponges. With healthy seagrass and corals, fish and other marine life can thrive, which provides food and livelihoods for the community.
ProCosta’s staying power
Not only is it spreading information that a vibrant, healed ecosystem provides benefits for all species, including humans, but also that ProCosta has stayed in Jiquilisco Bay. Far too many conservation projects worldwide drop in to save a species or conduct a program only to turn around and leave after success has momentarily been achieved.
Since 2008, Henríquez has been here, beginning with a small team of three and growing so that they are now part of the community’s family. “They trust us, and they support us because… we’re not leaving them.”
This approach to conservation has proven successful. As of April 2022, Henríquez and her team have seen almost 700 nesting females in the region, and each year they keep tagging new turtles.
A comeback story
One of Henríquez’s favorite moments on the ground came in 2012 when she received a call from the hatchery managers about a nesting turtle. When her team arrived at the island, they saw Isabela, one of their first tagged turtles from 2008.
Henríquez and the community members celebrated this success that Isabela considers the beach safe for her eggs and that she forages in the bay, finding the area suitable to live in as well. It means the conservation efforts in El Salvador are working and working well.
It is progress the entire community can see and why locally-led conservation is successful. When the community can witness their surroundings improving, more turtles returning and more hatchings going out to sea, they feel further empowered to make their environment better.
Fighting for turtles is a fight for the planet
In addition to ProCosta, Henríquez is a member of the Marine Turtle Specialist Group of the IUCN. Her work in Jiquilisco Bay is also featured in the short documentary La Voz del Mar: Hope for Hawksbill Turtles.
She continues to passionately fight for sea turtles, marine life, and the coastal communities around them. Henríquez and her team showcase that long-term investment in the right people and projects are solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss.
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