Saving the Amazon, or at least trying: A tough job for taricaya turtles

Published November 11, 2019, 10:00 AM

by AJ Siytangco


They are not mutants and they don’t live in the sewers of New York. They don’t star in films or television series. However, the task of the taricaya turtles is a tough one – fully as ambitious and worthwhile as that of a superhero – namely, saving the Amazon.

As if that weren’t enough, Podonecmis unifilis – the scientific name of this species – is also winning another noteworthy fight: recovering from its near-extinct status in the Nanay River region near Iquitos, in the heart of Peru’s tropical jungle.

A newborn "taricaya" turtle explores its habitat on Nov. 9, 2019. Thousands of the turtles were released near Iquitos, Peru, to try and repopulate the species in in the Naray River region in Peru's Amazon zone. (EFE-EPA/ Christian Ugarte / MANILA BULLETIN)
A newborn “taricaya” turtle explores its habitat on Nov. 9, 2019. Thousands of the turtles were released near Iquitos, Peru, to try and repopulate the species in in the Naray River region in Peru’s Amazon zone. (EFE-EPA/ Christian Ugarte / MANILA BULLETIN)

The mission to save the forest and its flora and fauna was “handed” to these little turtles, who look like something out of a comic strip, as part of a public-private initiative among several Peruvian government institutions and the Grupo AJE, which is promoting the reinsertion and recovery of the animal in areas where it has disappeared, thus helping reestablish the natural environmental balance in the jungle zone.


The turtles are the linchpin of an action plan, the critical juncture for which came this past week in the Nanay River region with the release of about 5,500 baby turtles into the waters there.

The young turtles, measuring just 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) long, come from the hatching of 205 nests that were artificially incubated in “beaches” set up in different spots in the city of Iquitos.

The eggs come from the Pacaya Samiria nature preserve, an area where the local residents collected the eggs some weeks ago and – instead of consuming them – provided them to the project to help repopulate the species in the area.

Jorge Lopez-Doriga, the executive director of communications and sustainability for Grupo AJE, which is financing most of the project, told EFE that “we’re buying from the communities the results of Pacaya Samiria to raise them and release them in other areas.”

“We want the residents to value protection of the forest and we want to take that to other areas. So, we’re recovering the turtles, and with them we’re linking the public to taking care of them, since they offer the chance for economic development, food and caring for the environment,” he told EFE.

The idea is to convince local residents and everyone else that the “green gold” – that is, the Amazon’s biodiversity – represented in this case by the turtles, is worth more than “black gold or yellow gold” because of its sustainability.

Key elements of the initiative include selling the turtles to raise them as well as the tourist angle, with people traveling to the area to see them, care for them and release them.


As Jose Alvarez, the director for biological biodiversity with Peru’s Environment Ministry, told EFE that “the Amazon, despite its abundance and extreme biodiversity, is rather ill.”

“In the past, the taricayas abounded in this area, but they were eradicated, and these forests no longer have the elements (needed) for balance. It’s the fauna that dispersed the seeds and controlled forestation, while a hole opened up in food security, since the turtle eggs were an essential element of protein for the indigenous populations,” he said.

Among the most serious consequences of their absence is the “socio-economic catastrophe the Indians are suffering, with awful anemia rates and endemic malnutrition,” the biologist said.

With nests containing up to 50 eggs per year, the development of the turtle population will make an important contribution – “greater than tourism” – in the lives of the local residents, in an environment that will benefit from the presence of an animal that will also help to control vegetation and disperse seeds.

“These turtles were a very important source of resources for the societies and they fulfilled essential functions for the ecosystem that they stopped fulfilling. What we want is to give some human help to nature to recover the benefits it provided in the past. Destruction of the fauna is brutal in the accessible zones of the Amazon. This is a start toward recovering something that was working well,” he said.