On the turtle’s trail by Roger Hamilton

On the turtle’s trail by Roger Hamilton

Endangered species generate public support for measures to protect fragile ecosystems. “It must have been a hawksbill,” said Alejandro Gallo, explaining that the other principal sea turtle species in the Bay Islands, the loggerhead, generally lays its eggs on the beach itself.
Gallo followed the tracks through the tangle of bushes until he found what looked like an undisturbed nest. Satisfied, he retraced his steps to the water’s edge, scuffing away the dimpled footprints as he went. It’s now illegal to take turtle eggs, he explained, but it’s better to remove temptation from a casual passerby.

Gallo, conservationist, youth leader, and former Mr. Honduras, was midway on a patrol around the island of Utila, off Honduras’ north coast. As head of the turtle conservation program of the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA), he pays special attention to this swath of beach, which is a favored nesting area. The beach area is protected by municipal ordinance and managed by BICA.

Gallo returned to the skiff, which was piloted by BICA President Antonio Woods. They turned back out to sea, crossing over flats covered with sea grass and out past the breakers marking the edge of the world’s second largest barrier reef.

“This reef doesn’s just belong to the islanders, or to Honduras, but to the whole world,” said Woods. Although he applauded the local municipality for passing an ordinance to give the reef at least some measure of protection, he said that the central government must provide its support to safeguard this fragile ecosystem for the long term.

Nearing the western end of the island, Gallo spotted a small plastic container bobbing in the waves. He suspected it was marking an illegal lobster trap. He hauled the line attached to it, only to have it break as the trap came into view.

Ecological limits. In contrast to the diversity in the waters surrounding them, the small size of the islands themselves puts strict limits on numbers of species they can sustain. Only 13 km long and 4 km wide, and 80 percent consisting of mangrove swamp, Utila nevertheless contains areas of intact natural forests and several endemic species of animals.

One is the Utila iguana (Ctenosaura bakeri), a large—and to many residents, tasty—reptile considered to be endangered. It too has its advocates.

A short walk from the center of Utila Town takes a visitor to the Iguana Station. Primarily supported by German and other European organizations, the station’s tiny staff and corps of enthusiastic volunteers run an islandwide program of environmental education while carrying out captive breeding and research.

Station Director Karsten Gees and a group of volunteers were weighing and measuring juvenile iguanas, part of an ongoing effort to get the data needed to design protection measures. He explained that a municipal ban on hunting in 1995 removed a lot of the pressure on the iguana population. “But we’re concerned that development is going to reduce critical habitat,” he said.

The iguanas live in mangrove swamps, which are protected. But the females lay their eggs in the sandy beaches. Gees would like to buy some beachfront property for an iguana reserve, but first his group’s research must provide answers to some critical questions. How much land will do the job? Are some areas more suitable than others? How well can iguanas tolerate disturbances, such as passing cars?

Gees applauded the present municipal government’s eagerness to pass ordinances to protect sensitive terrestrial and marine areas. “But what about the next mayor?” he asked. For safeguards to be real, he says, the central government must guarantee their protected status on into the future. Gees’ concerns are being addressed by the IDB-financed Bay Islands Environmental Management Program. The program includes full-scale management of three marine and three terrestrial protected areas. An additional six areas would receive a basic level of management. All together, 21,000 hectares of coral reefs, coastal lagoons and mangrove swamps, and 5,280 hectares of inland forests will receive protection.
The management plans would be financed by a Bay Islands Conservation and Protected Areas Fee charged to tourists. Surveys indicate that visitors would be willing to pay $10 if they were assured that the money would be used for conservation purposes. With the plan in place, the people of the Bay Islands will be far better able to protect their natural heritage.

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