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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER)
Cycle 4 (2015 Deadline)

Where is my Turtle? Quantifying biodiversity impacts of hydroelectric expansion and river use changes in the Brazilian Amazon

PI: Darren Norris (, University of Amapá
U.S. Partner: James Gibbs, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry  (SUNY-ESF)
Project Dates: October 2015 - September 2018

Project Website:

Project Overview

4-123 Turtles' first swim
Turtle hatchlings take their first swim!
Semi-aquatic species are impacted by hydroelectric developments and river use changes, and to engage multiple stakeholders (from children to local landowners to electricity companies) Dr. Norris and his colleagues chose to focus on conservation of the river turtle Podocnemis unifilis within a unique socioeconomic development scenario (Amapa State). P. unifilis represent provisioning (food, source of income) and cultural services for Amazon populations (Vogt 2008), and unlike charismatic mammal species like the Giant Otter (Michalski et al. 2012), river turtles do not generate negative perceptions in local human populations (Norris & Michalski 2013). Additionally, river turtles depend on both terrestrial (nesting) and aquatic (feeding/reproduction) environments, which provides multiple opportunities for achieving engagement, research, and biodiversity conservation objectives. In sum, river turtles are thus ideal biodiversity conservation “flagship” species that deliver important ecosystem services and elicit strong affinity in people for the conservation of wild species and their habitats. However, no previous study has robustly quantified a P. unifilis population. A variety of approaches have been used but none incorporate detectability. As such, previous studies only provided estimates of minimum or maximum numbers, which are not suitable for comparison (Norris et al. 2011) and are not associated with population parameters required to inform conservation actions. By integrating data from multiple techniques this project team aims to provide a robust assessment of P. unifilis movements and demographics.

The participation and integration of local schools, regional post-graduate courses, lecturers, researchers, students, and local people from riverine communities will transfer knowledge and help to create new practices and innovative educational techniques. Conservation solutions will be generated by integrating multiple stakeholders as research participants in an advanced and robust biodiversity conservation program in the most completely protected state of the Brazilian Amazon. This project will also contribute directly to six National Biodiversity Conservation targets in Brazil.

Summary of Recent Activities

4-123 Students take part in a survey
Team members survey the river (photo courtesy of Dr. Norris).
Dr. Norris and his group continued river-based monitoring of river turtle populations during the fourth quarter of 2017, bringing their overall project totals to 484 km of river boat census observations conducted and 344 river turtle nests monitored. Three female MSc students participated in the data gathering and will use the data collected as the basis for their final MSc dissertations. The presence and dedication of the students enabled the team to focus in more detail on aspects (such as the success and failure of river turtle nests) that are directly linked with the newly initiated community management of river turtle nesting areas. The capacity building of the team’s field assistants also continued in Year 2 of the project, making it possible to transfer increasing responsibilities to the local community. Dr. Norris hopes that the increased community involvement will ensure the long-term conservation of the species and its habitats in the local study region.

During an outreach event organized on October 13, 2017, during which the results of the first year of the project were presented, several local community members expressed interest in starting community-based management of river turtles. The demand for action was supported by ICMBIO (which was also represented at the event) and is an important addition to facilitate integration of the sustainable-use protected area and the local communities. This demand from the community was also a welcome validation and endorsement of the data gathered by the project over the past years. During this same month, a visit by U.S. partner Prof. James Gibbs (supported by a PEER Partner Cooperation Supplement) provided additional experience and knowledge necessary to rapidly and efficiently implement anti-predator devices and monitoring of turtle nests with camera traps. The results of this community-based management will be presented to the local communities at a meeting planned for January 2018.

Meanwhile, through a series of reports, presentations, and meetings with governmental and non-governmental groups, the PI and his team developed and presented a proposal for restoration of river turtle nesting areas. As of January 2018, this proposal was under evaluation by the Instituto do Meio Ambiente e de Ordenamento Territorial do Amapá (IMAP). One of the team’s key meetings was with a group of lawyers and judges at the Ministerio Publico Federal (Federal District Attorney’s Office) to present findings regarding the impacts of the dam on turtle populations. The result was that restoration of turtle nesting beaches is to now be included as a conditioning factor for the renewal of the local hydroelectric company’s operating license in 2018. Subsequently, two more meetings were held at IMAP to define requirements for restoration actions in the turtle nesting area.

Plans for the first half of 2018 including identifying and purchasing appropriate telemetry equipment to be used in better tracking turtle movements within the study area. The lack of suitable equipment on the market has delayed the purchase by many months, but the PI and U.S. partner discussed the situation during the latter’s visit in October 2017 and aim to complete the purchase in January 2018. The team will also focus on ensuring that IMAP concludes and delivers the notification to the hydroelectric company to implement requirements for the turtle nesting area restoration actions. In addition to the planned January 2018 meeting with local residents to present results from the past two years and the first year of community turtle management, they also plan to reengage with local schools to implement lesson plans that have been developed.

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