In many ways, the Tortuguero National Park (TNP) has been a tremendous success. Home to four endangered turtle species, as well as countless other exotic species, TNP is a very popular tourist destination. Indeed, tourism has increased tremendously since the 1980s and the village of Tortuguero is highly dependent on this activity. However, given the increase in tourist traffic and the mismanagement of the park site, both the turtle population and the tourism industry that depends on it, are in jeopardy. What follows is a proposal that will enhance the visitor experience in the park while also protecting the fragile turtle nesting area.
My proposal for reducing the disturbance of nesting turtle consists in the implementation of a Park Guide/Ranger program. First, all park visitors, particularly those visitors in the nesting area, should be escorted by park guides. These park guides would ideally be people from the local community of Tortuguero that are familiar with the region and the turtle habitat.1 Moreover, as stakeholders in the park and in non-consumptive use the of the various turtle species that nest they have a vested interest in the maintenance of the park site.
Operating out of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) Museum, these guides’ role will be to educate park visitors about the biology of sea turtles, the threats to the turtles as well as the ongoing efforts to save them from extinction. To this end, as part of the park admission fee, all park visitors will be invited to attend a guide-run presentation on turtle habitat, the history of the park and ongoing conservation efforts. After the presentation, visitors will then be escorted in small groups through the various turtle viewing areas. Individual guides will be responsible for ensuring that the visitors do not inadvertently harm the turtles, the hatchlings or their habitat.2 It is my contention that these guides will enhance the tourist experience in the park by providing interesting insights into the social and cultural history of the area while also being influential advocates for turtle conservation. More on this later.
In addition to the park ranger program outlined above, I think it is important to establish a basic set of rules for all visitors to the park. These rules will be implemented and applied by the park guides. Ideally, a document outlining the rules will be provided to all park visitors upon payment of the entrance fee. These rules will also be placed in all high traffic areas in the park.3 As noted in the TNP impact study, there is currently little respect for the fragility of the nesting area which is significantly impacting turtle emergences and, as a result, turtle population. What follows is a list of potential rules and their justifications:
1. No flash photography should be allowed in the nesting area. The impact study shows that flash photography is affecting turtle nesting behaviour and it should therefore be stopped. This is likely to be an unpopular prohibition since many tourists enjoy taking pictures while on vacation. However, flash photography is prohibited in many of the world’s great museums (the Louvre) to protect photosensitive oil paintings so I can see no good reason to allow it when it is affecting the habitat of an endangered species.
2. No flashlights should be allowed into the nesting area. Park guides will be equipped with flashlights for emergency purposes and, if necessary, for moving between viewing areas. Guide flashlights will be equipped with red filters since research suggests that sea turtles are less sensitive to red light.4 Moreover, red light does not adversely affect our ability to see in low light.5 This measure will allow for better viewing of nesting areas without the aid of artificial light.
3. All tourist activity near or around the turtles’ nesting area should be minimized. This prohibition includes any human conduct that disturbs the nesting turtles (like digging or handling of eggs) or any conduct that would result in the destruction or compromise of the hatchlings. Much like the role of tour guides in Antarctica, it will be the responsibility of the individual park guide to manage her group accordingly. Obviously, touching and handling of hatchlings, eggs and turtles will be strictly forbidden.
In addition to the rules listed above, there should be a limitation on the number of visitors allowed in the park, especially in the evenings. Researchers have shown that while increased numbers of tourists may provide increased revenues, this increase will result in added pressure on the ecosystem of the host area.6 Since visitor numbers are much higher on weekends, a possible solution is to have mid-week pricing incentives to encourage off-peak visits.
Finally, the entrance fee to the park should be high enough to cover the costs associated with the aforementioned conservation efforts.7 Currently the entry fee to the park is $7USD.8 A World Bank study indicated that most conservation parks drastically undercharge for park entrance. For example, visitors to Madagascar’s tropical biological reserves were willing to pay as much as 30 times the rate they were charged for admission.9 The study further indicated that that modest price increases rarely reduce the number of visitations. Indeed, tourists who have spent thousands of dollars to get to Costa Rica are unlikely to have their preferences affected by a moderate increase in price.10 Moreover, to the extent that visitors are attracted to the park to witness both its natural beauty and the wonder of the nesting turtles, they are likely to be willing to pay an amount sufficient to cover the cost of conserving the turtle and its habitat.11
Mitigating Tourist Impact
The foregoing proposal will mitigate tourist impact in the following ways. First, the park guides will manage park guests.12 Under the supervision of the park guides, visitors will be prevented from using flash cameras and flashlights and from handling hatchlings. Moreover they will not be permitted to roam freely in the nesting area which will reduce the number of hatchlings that are trampled by park visitors. Also, the presentation at the CCC Museum and the signage and promotional material will create a “conservation consciousness” among the visitors which will result in conservation-friendly behaviours while in the park. Even though they will always be accompanied by a park guide, visitors will not need to be constantly monitored as they will, in effect, monitor themselves.
Second, park guides will educate visitors. Tourists are an important stakeholder in the conservation of the natural environment. Tourists can positively impact conservation efforts both through vacation spending and, often as important, through their advocacy in their home countries. This often overlooked impact of ecotourism is known as Constituency Building and it can help conservation in many ways. Tourists are likely to give more generously to either conservation organizations working to preserve the site they visited or to conservation more broadly. Also, they often are willing to donate their time and energy to lobby for or against policies or activities which threaten the areas they have visited. Many join or start organizations which support the area they have visited by starting lobbying or publicity efforts, and looking for financial support. Finally, they act as “conservation ambassadors” and convince friends and family to take similar trips and increase their support for conservation. The importance of such a constituency should not be underestimated.
Third, prohibiting the use of flash cameras has the added benefit of creating a market for high quality turtle photographs. This market could thus be serviced by local businesses e.g. photographers and gift shops. Also, the park could generate revenue through the sale of a limited number of photographer permits that would allow a limited number of professional photographers to photograph nesting turtles in a sustainable fashion.
Fourth, regularizing visits to the park ensures that the carrying capacity of the site will not be exceeded. Overcrowding in the park makes visitors difficult to manage which likely contributes to the trampling of hatchlings and the agitation of nesting turtles. As above, exceeding carrying capacity degrades the ecosystem of the host area.
Fifth, increasing the benefits that inure to the community through paid employment and increased tourist traffic reinforces the symbiotic link between the community and the turtles and solidifies the conservation mentality. In this way, townspeople come to understand that non-consumptive use of turtles is essential to their livelihood and they will thus contribute to the education of tourists informally through casual conversation and dialogue. Indeed, it has been shown that when communities experience the economic benefits from non-consumptive tourism, they will be discouraged from consumptive or destructive uses.13
It is clear that the TNP tourism will continue to be an important source of income for the village of Tortuguero. However, the increased tourist activity threatens the long term viability of the turtle population and, as a result, the economy of the host community. The establishment of a park guide program to enforce and implement the rules listed above as well as an increase in the park fee will help mitigate the tourist impact on the natural environment. Indeed, if the current practices are not curbed, sea turtles may disappear altogether depriving the host community of its livelihood and depriving the world of one of its great creatures.