“In the not too distant past, our turtles almost disappeared,” said Lola Salvatierra, one of the town’s teachers and passionate conservationists. Sitting in the only restaurant in Versalles—a one-room shack constructed of dried palm leaves—she tells the history. As demand for turtle shells increased, the community poached more and smaller turtles, unaware of the consequences. When the turtle population dipped too low, they sought help and began counting baby turtles to ensure a viable population. Eventually, with the support of WWF, they also came to sustainably manage the forests and beaches, finding a balance between tapping natures’ resources and conserving them for the future.
“Now we not only count baby turtles, but we protect the beaches that are most important for hatching,” she said.
These efforts have helped turtle numbers rebound, but the species remains vulnerable to threats far beyond the community’s control. For the past few years, many baby turtles have died and nests rotted long before the massive hatching occurs. The Itenez River level is rising, drowning the animals before their natural call to exit the nest arrives.
Many believe the river’s rise is caused by recently constructed dams in Brazil. Scientists have already found that water levels immediately behind the dams’ reservoirs have risen, and the impacts may reach all the way to Versalles.