José Urteaga: Named Emerging Explorer by National Geographic
Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) José Urteaga, Nicaragua’s Program Manager, has been named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his conservation work on threatened marine turtles in Nicaragua. “FFI is proud and delighted that the National Geographic Society has given José this global recognition,” said Rob Bensted-Smith, Americas and Caribbean Regional Director, FFI. Mr Urteaga, a marine biologist who studied at Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata in Argentina, has been working on FFI’s marine turtle program since 2002. “He is already an inspiration for his colleagues at FFI and our partner organizations. This award will enhance his role as a natural leader of marine conservation in Nicaragua and the region”. All seven species of marine turtles are threatened with extinction globally, with five of these found in Nicaraguan waters. Turtles migrate from feeding grounds across the Pacific Ocean to nest on Nicaraguan beaches.“I don’t just work with turtles, I work with people,” Mr Urteaga said. “Marine turtles have been here since ancient times. The problem is us.”
Bringing marine turtles back from the brink of extinction requires protection on beaches and at sea. It is a task that will take many generations to complete and Mr Urteaga has dedicated himself to it wholeheartedly. A major challenge preventing the illegal harvesting of turtle eggs along Nicaragua’s Pacific coastline, where many people live on less than US$1 per day and are tempted by the prospect of extra income from selling turtle eggs. “We can’t only look at this only from the turtles’ point of view,” Mr Urteaga explains, “We must also see the human side.” He and his team work tirelessly not only to patrol the beaches and protect the nests but also to help communities develop alternative income sources, such as organic farming, beekeeping and crafts.
Conservation itself can provide local employment, for example as beach monitors or, in the case of one women’s group, weaving discarded plastic bags into shoulder bags for sale to visitors. Mr Urteaga has also been instrumental in building a network of hatcheries, where juvenile turtles hatch in safety before being released. So far over 80 community members have been trained in turtle monitoring, hatchery management and other conservation work.
Meanwhile, in the cities, the team runs a high profile campaign against the consumption of turtle eggs, in order to drive down demand. This comprehensive, people-centred approach has led to an impressive rise in hatching success. Before the programme began, almost every leatherback turtle egg laid on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast was poached. Only a few years later, studies estimate more than 90% of leatherback nests are protected on key beaches.
“We’ve protected 350 leatherback nests and more than 45 breeding females,” Mr Urteaga reports. “Those numbers sound small until you realize that the entire eastern Pacific population has fewer than 1,000 females.”
In addition, many thousands of nests of the threatened Olive Ridley turtle have been protected.
While continuing the vital work of protecting nests, Mr Urteaga is now turning his attention to the survival of turtles at sea, especially in the nearshore areas where they congregate. This involves working with fishermen to reduce by-catch, by using fish hooks that are less hazardous to turtles, and finding innovative ways to convince the fishermen themselves to become custodians of the turtles and of the marine ecosystem of which they are such a magnificent symbol.
“As two organizations founded over 100 years ago, National Geographic and FFI share a commitment to celebrating the human talent that is essential to conservation success,” said Katie Frohardt, Executive Director, FFI in the United States. “We are grateful for their recognition of José, and of his remarkable efforts with turtles as a powerful flagship for broader conservation and development in Nicaragua, and indeed globally.”
Drawing his inspiration from the turtles, Mr Urteaga is himself inspiring countless Nicaraguans who would not otherwise have thought twice about sea turtles and their fate.