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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 (dnorris75@gmail.com), 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 - March 2020

Project Website: http://myturtlebrazil.wixsite.com/whereismyturtle

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).
During the second quarter of 2019, the focus on this project continued  to be data sharing and dissemination, including preparation of two more scientific articles based on the results obtained by the two female Master’s students. The results obtained over the last four years were also presented to those responsible for the conservation of freshwater turtles in Brazil at the 4th monitoring workshop for the Brazilian National Amazonian Chelonian Action Plan (Plano de Ação Nacional para a Conservação dos Quelônios Amazônicos). The annual event brings together specialists from government agencies (IBAMA, ICMBio), NGOs (e.g. World Conservation Society) and universities, and its primary objective was to evaluate progress on planned actions for the conservation of the species protected by the plan, assessing the problems faced and the results obtained. The attendees included representatives from Ibama, ICMBio, National Institute of Amazonian Research, Federal University of Western Pará, Federal University of Pará, Federal University of Amazonas, Federal University of Amapá, Institute of Protection Amazonas Environmental, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

With the approval of a budget reallocation on this PEER project, July through September 2019 will be dedicated primarily to implementing the work plan and preparing for the 2019/2020 turtle nesting season, during which Dr. Norris and his team will be installing the river level monitoring system to facilitate community-based monitoring of river turtle nests and rivers. The equipment purchased will continue to be installed in cooperation with the local communities, who will be responsible for monitoring rivers and river turtle nesting beaches, collecting data, and disseminating the results. The effectiveness of the community-based monitoring will be quantified by comparison with the previous years of data collected. Together with the local community and applying the expertise and input of the U.S. partner Dr. James Gibbs, the PEER team will work to ensure effective and integrated monitoring of river use and sources of biodiversity degradation (litter, plastic, hunting, fire, etc.) around the river turtle nesting beaches along 150 km of rivers.

At the end of the project, the PI plans to convene a four-day international workshop to develop sustainable alternatives for the conservation of river turtles around the FLONA. The expected output of the workshop would be a five-year roadmap for sustainable turtle conservation in the region. The anticipated outcome would be strengthening of local and regional collaborations, including integration with ICMBIO and local communities. In addition, the project team will be designing and installing a network of water level sensors around some of their turtle habitat study sites as a means of providing early warning in case flooding threatens nests and hatchlings. A no-cost extension has been issued through March 2020 to allow for this recalibration and completion of planned activities.

A joint article by the PI, colleague Dr. Fernanda Michalski, and U.S. partner Dr. Gibbs is available online: “Beyond harm’s reach? Submersion of river turtle nesting areas and implications for restoration actions after Amazon hydropower development” (PeerJ 6:e4228 ).


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