Wildlife conservation is challenging. In part because we lack essential knowledge on species life-history, distribution or abundance, but also because threats are generally anthropogenic and we lack detailed understanding of the human dimensions of conservation. Numerous scholars have studied the relationship between poverty and its impact on the ecosystem condition, and the importance of environmental education and legal frameworks in successful conservation initiatives to improve enforcement and maintain relationships among traditional people and their environments. In relation to marine turtle conservation, there are significant knowledge gaps in relation to people and their role in conservation. Hence, in this thesis I evaluate human dimension aspects that affect the conservation status of marine turtles, and to improve our understanding of the relationships among human societies and wildlife conservation. To achieve my aim, I assessed four research objectives:
1) Evaluate how socio-economic drivers and legal frameworks affect the level of protection of marine turtles worldwide;
2) Identify and understand the conservation conflicts that impact marine turtle protection initiatives in the Caribbean basin;
3) Assess the historical and current demographic status of marine turtle stocks in the Gulf of Venezuela; and
4) Study the scale of use, cultural component and value of marine turtles to Wayuú Indigenous people, especially as a medicinal resource.
Human societies are closely linked to their ecological environments and the conservation capacity of a country’s government plays a key role in the protection of marine turtles. In chapter 2, I aimed to (1) evaluate the conservation capacity and enforcement within the 58 regional management units (RMUs) of the seven species of marine turtles throughout the world, using the Human Development Index (HDI) and economic levels as proxies; and (2) to predict the conservation status of 43 marine turtle RMU by merging several indices. To do this I developed a Conservation and Enforcement Capacity index (CECi) by integrating (1) the economic level of each country (defined by the United Nations); (2) the HDI (World Economic Situation and Prospects database); and (3) the risks and threats identified in the RMU framework. I then used the most recent conservation status of 15 recently IUCN assessed RMUs to predict the conservation status of the 43 RMUs without updated IUCN categorisation. I evaluated the conservation status of marine turtle RMUs in relation to the socio-economic situation of the region for each RMU. I found that using only the HDI as a proxy to assess the conservation capacity of the governments was weak. However, by using a multi-index model, I was able to predict the status of 33 of 58 RMUs, of them 57% may be of threatened conservation status due to their high CECi values.
Consumptive use of threatened species, such as marine turtles, is one of the main challenges for environmental and conservation entities. In the case of marine turtles, this use is controversial. For this reason, in Chapter 3, I evaluated how consumptive use (legal and illegal) of marine turtles occurs (regulated or not) and is distributed worldwide. After an extensive literature review, I identified and categorised the regulations associated with the consumptive use of marine turtles. Of 137 countries with a marine-facing coastline and a presence of turtles. Of them I found that legislation prevents use in 98 of them (72%), and legal use occurs in 39. Among these 39 countries, use is regulated in 33 (85%) with parameters, such as ethnicity, region, size, quotas, and special permits.
Conflicts among local, national, regional and international stakeholders (involved in marine turtle conservation) often they arise because people or groups involved come from different socio-economic backgrounds. In chapter 4, I narrow the scale of my thesis to the Caribbean region. I aim to identify and assess the conservation-based conflicts occurring in the Caribbean countries, identifying their frequency, level of severity, number of stakeholders’ groups involved, the degree to which they hinder conservation goals, and potential solutions. I evaluated the presence and details of conservation conflicts provided by 72 respondents including conservation-based project leaders, researchers, and people involved in policy-based decision-making, conservation volunteers, and species experts with experience working on marine turtle conservation programs in the Caribbean. The respondents identified 136 conflicts, and I grouped them into 16 different categories. The most commonly mentioned causes of conflicts were: 1) the ‘lack of enforcement by local authorities to support conservation based legislation or programs’ (18%); 2) ‘legal consumption of turtles by one sector of community clashing the conservation aspirations of other sectors of community (14%); and 3) ‘variable enforcement of legislation to limit/prohibit use across range states of the species (10%). From the respondents, it is also apparent that illicit activities in the region are also impacting in the success of conservation based projects and programs.
In chapters 5, 6, and 7, I narrow the focus of my thesis down to a country scale and examine the current state of knowledge species distribution and threats (Chapter 5), consumptive use and trade (Chapter 6) as well as indigenous (Wayuú) perspectives (Chapter 7) in the Venezuelan territory, and its effect on the current use of marine turtles (consumptive and non-consumptive). In chapter 5, I combined data from field-based studies with survey data from community based monitoring and historical records to investigate the distribution and threats to Venezuela’s marine turtles. Overall, my findings confirm that five species of marine turtle use the Gulf of Venezuela, and I provide baseline stranding trends for four of them. I evaluated 1,571 records of stranded marine turtles comprising of 82% green turtles, 8% hawksbill turtles, 5% leatherback turtles, 4% loggerhead turtles, and 1% olive ridley turtles. I found that 82% of the all turtles recorded as stranded were immature.
The co-occurrence of multiple species and both immature and adult-size turtles indicates that the Gulf of Venezuela provides important habitat for year-round feeding and development. As part of this baseline evaluation in the Gulf of Venezuela, in Chapters 6 and 7, I assessed the scale and cultural component of consumptive use of marine turtles in the region. To assess the scale and cultural component of this use, I interviewed residents and indigenous elders from the southwestern coast of the Gulf of Venezuela (Venezuelan part of the Guajira Peninsula), using a combination of in-depth and semi-structured interviews. I carried out a field and detailed market-based observations on the Guajira Peninsula to detect the sale and use of marine turtle products. I focused on three main categories of use; the type of use (e.g. traditional medicine, non-commercial cultural or commercial), the type of product, routes of trade, and the price of products. I identified types of products, routes of trade, and the prices of different products. All of the marine turtle species reported from the Gulf of Venezuela were used by people, sometimes commercially, and the prices of products varied among their type, species of origin, and the distance from the capture area to a marketplace. I obtained evidence connecting Wayuú Indigenous people’s traditions and beliefs with marine turtle use, and also how up to 11 different marine turtle body parts are used for traditional medicine, and as an economic resource to sustain their communities. It is probable that illegal trade of marine turtle products is placing pressure on populations in the Gulf of Venezuela. I recommend the implementation of an inter-institutional conservation-portfolio be developed for the Peninsula to evaluate actions related to this concern.