Critically Endangered Magdalena River Turtles released in Colombia

By Jordan Gray, Igor Valencia, German Forero-Medina, and Natalia Gallego

Podocnemis lewyana

Magdalena River Turtles hatch in their incubation chamber.

On 19 May 2017, over 1,000 Critically Endangered Magdalena River Turtle (Podocnemis lewyana) hatchlings were released into the muddy waters of the Sinú River in northwestern Colombia. The release event was attended by hundreds of locals from the Cotocá Arriba district of Cordoba, Colombia; many of whom are active participants in the Tortugas del Sinú conservation program there.

Podocnemis lewyana

Tortugas del Sinú collaborators pose together.

Tortugas del Sinú was developed in 2006 as a community-based conservation program with the Cotocá Arriba community. The program is supported by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS,) Disney Conservation Fund, Coopertiva Econbiba, and the Mario Santo Domingo Foundation. Its focus is to provide education, promote conservation stewardship, facilitate economic sustainability, and directly protect nests, incubate eggs, and release hatchlings of the Magdalena River Turtle.

Podocnemis lewyana

Community members of all ages select their turtles for release.

The Magdalena River Turtle is regarded as one of the “Top 25” most imperiled chelonians in the world. They are the only Podocnemid turtle found west of the Andes Mountains, and only in the Magdalena, San Jorge, Cauca, and Sinú Rivers drainages. With none of their populations being found in protected areas, the turtle is at the mercy of anthropogenic impacts to its riverine habitat. As a species that primarily nests on sand bars and sandy beaches, the Magdalena River Turtle has been heavily impacted by the damming of the Sinú River for hydroelectric power. Due to this damming activity, the river levels are controlled by the containment and release of water from the dam. This man-made control of the river has greatly affected the natural processes of the river’s biological community, including the untimely inundation of the turtle’s historic nesting beaches.

Podocnemis lewyana

A female Magdalena River Turtle basks on a sandbar.

The Tortugas del Sinú program takes a multi-pronged approach toward stewardship of this turtle including (1) in situ management, (2) ex situ management, (3) monitoring, (4) participatory research, (5) awareness raising and environmental education and (6) economic development opportunities. Citizens in this program regularly watch for poaching activities, identify and protect turtle nests, and with the help of the TSA’s and WCS’s professional chelonian biologists, excavate nests and incubate eggs that would otherwise be inundated by waters released from the dam. This year, 8 nesting beaches were protected, 72 nests were incubated ex situ, and 1104 hatchlings produced; nearly twice the amount as the previous year!

Podocnemis lewyana

The Cotocá Arriba community release hatchlings into the Sinú River.

Each year, Tortgas del Sinú hosts a “River Turtle Festival” in May to engage the Cotocá Arriba community in turtle-related events and education, and to release the hatchling turtles. This festival has become very popular, as the ceremonial release provides an opportunity for all age levels of the community to participate in hands-on interaction with the turtles as they release them. It is with high-hopes in the community and the supporting partners that the release of these hatchlings will one day bolster the Sinú River population of this critically endangered species. Tortugas del Sinú’s continued success depends in part on generous donations from supporters of the TSA. To help ensure the Magdelena River Turtle persists in the rivers of Colombia for years to come, DONATE TODAY.

Podocnemis lewyana

A freshly-hatched clutch of Magdalena River Turtles.