THE South Rupununi Conservation Society (SRCS) and Sand Creek Village, earlier this month, held a “Turtle Festival” in Region Nine with the joint purpose of releasing over 600 rescued Yellow-spotted River Turtles and to raise awareness of the importance of conserving the turtle population and other wildlife.
This was the second year that the festival has been held in the Sand Creek Village and it is hoped that it will continue to be an annual event. For this occasion, SRCS invited children from six communities from South Central Rupununi including Sawariwau, Katoonarib, Shiriri, Rupunau, Shulinab and Potarinau to join students in Sand Creek at the festival to make an attendance of more than 150 children.
The festival began with a banner procession followed by a costume competition with prizes on offer for the winners. There were then eight activity booths for the children to attend, including wildlife games, giant snakes and ladders, guess the animal and face-painting –
all of which had an important message about wildlife, turtles and conservation.
After lunch, the children presented turtle-themed songs, skits, dances and poems which were assessed by the judges with prizes for the winners. The last event for the day was the releasing of the rescued turtles.
Participants were told to give their turtle a name before releasing them into the river and the remaining 762 turtles were subsequently released by the SRCS rangers, along the Rupununi River.
Vice-Chairman of the Regional Democratic Council for Region Nine, Bertie Xavier, was in attendance and was happy that the event served the purposes of conserving the turtles and educating children on the importance of wildlife. Other organisations, including the Protected Areas Commission and the Rupununi Livestock Producers Association, were also in attendance.
Recalling how it all got started, SRCS Programme Coordinator, Neal Millar, told the Guyana Chronicle that residents of Sand Creek used to see turtles in abundance every time they went to the river, and as part of their cultural traditions, the village would have a turtle “feast” where they would collectively catch turtles and eat them together communally every year during the Christmas holidays. The last known feast was in the early 2000s when 93 turtles were caught for consumption.
“Since that time, residents of Sand Creek, especially the village elders, have noticed a serious decline in the turtle population. The obvious main threat for this was the overharvesting that occurred not only at Christmas time but throughout the year. In addition to the village catching adults, villagers also frequently go to the beaches along the Rupununi River during the hatching season to collect eggs to eat as they are a local delicacy,” he reflected.
In response to the decline, Sand Creek Village began collaboration with SRCS in 2020 to start a turtle conservation project. The aim of the project was to reverse the population decline of the Yellow-spotted River Turtle so that the cultural celebrations could one day be revived but in a more sustainable manner.
The project has involved training 13 villagers from Sand Creek village to become “turtle rangers”. These rangers have since been monitoring beaches along the Rupununi River during the hatching season (January to April) in 2021 and again in 2022 to prevent persons from the village disturbing the eggs on the beaches.
In both 2021 and 2022, the rangers rescued as many of the nests as they could. In 2021 the rangers were able to rescue over 400 eggs whilst this year they rescued over 1,400. This year, after a couple of weeks in the village, nearly all the eggs were hatched (1362). From April to September, the rangers looked after the turtles in their personal homes. “If they had not rescued them, all 1362 eggs would have perished which would have had a further negative effect on their population,” Millar pointed out.
The festival was made possible with support from the Frankfurt Zoological Society while the turtle project in Sand Creek has been supported since 2020 by the Sustainable Wildlife Management – Programme Guyana.