River Turtles Stage a Comeback!

Paulo and the Mysterious Muck Fish

Paulo Petry, the Conservancy’s freshwater specialist in Central and South America, digs for fish in the Amazon mud.


"As long as there are indigenous people in Oiapoque, we’ll conserve tracajá for future generations."

Paulo Roberto da Silva
a leader with the Galibi-Marworno indigenous group.

by Cara Goodman and Leandro Ramos
También en español. Também em português

When you think about the Amazon rainforest, maybe you imagine hearing tropical bird calls, daydream about fishing piranha out of the world’s greatest river, or slap yourself as you imagine millions of insect species creeping and crawling up your arms and legs. 

But chances are, you don’t picture river turtles. Compared to the spectacular cacophony that is the Amazon, the slow-moving, greenish-brown turtle can seem a little … boring.

But for indigenous groups in the northern Brazilian Amazon, these river turtles (or tracajá) are anything but boring – they’ve been an essential part of their diet and culture for generations. However, overharvesting has recently sent their numbers plummeting. So The Nature Conservancy is working with community members and local university researchers on a project to help keep tracajá populations stable.

Who Cares About a River Turtle?

Indigenous groups in the northern Brazilian Amazon have been relying on tracajá since as long as collective memory serves. The adult turtles and their eggs are an essential source of protein, and the tracajá have also long inspired local art and storytelling. Sometimes they become beloved family pets. Their shells are even used to make gaw-gaw, colorful musical instruments that harmonize with the rest of the forest soundtrack.

In Oiapoque, a region in the northern state of Amapá, Brazil where four indigenous groups live on three contiguous reserves, population growth has put pressures on tracajá populations. Nearly a decade ago, even those most skilled at locating tracajá and their nests began to have difficulty putting their talents to use: the tracajá population was diminishing, and fast. In 2001, tribal leaders met and decided something had to be done.

Making a Plan

They paired up with the Conservancy and researchers from the Federal University of Amazonas to design a project that would help keep tracajá populations stable—providing a long-term protein source for growing communities, preserving an important part of regional indigenous culture, cultivating a sense of environmental stewardship in children and ensuring that indigenous groups have viable plans to maintain their traditional, low-impact reliance on natural resources. 

After working with the communities to assess the status of tracajá populations, the Conservancy – in coordination with researchers and technicians – developed a plan to help these populations recover. The plan relies on locals and their children to care for the eggs and hatchlings when they’re at a stage most vulnerable to predators. The Conservancy also trained local indigenous environmental agents (AAIs) to support that effort.

This is how the project works:

  • September: AAIs and field technicians rely on indigenous knowledge of turtle nesting grounds to locate nests, and then carefully relocate the eggs to fenced-in and monitored tracajá pens.
  • December: The turtles begin to hatch, at which point they are distributed to families willing to nurture them in big plastic tubs for several months.
  • January – April: Participating families, and especially children, care for the baby turtles every day. They change their water, feed them local produce like bananas, rice, and sweet potato leaves and sun them for an appropriate period of time.
  • May: On a designated day, the children and their families release the young tracajá into local rivers and streams.

Over the past three years, the communities have released 777 tracajá, and the program is expected to continue to grow.

In time, participants believe they’ll be able to boost tracajá populations high enough to meet demand—even growing demand, as human populations continue to rise.

“As long as there are indigenous people in Oiapoque, we’ll conserve tracajá for future generations,” said Paulo Roberto da Silva, a leader with the Galibi-Marworno group.

Having children participate in the project is important for helping them develop a sense of environmental stewardship—of nurturing resources upon which everyone depends. The project will ensure that they and their families can continue to get nutrition from traditional community resources and develop an attachment to a cultural icon — one that, without conservation intervention, might have become a thing of local folklore.


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