Move, aimed at reversing population decline, comes amid a controversial smuggling trade in endangered species
“Go be happy, go be happy!” a team of wardenos shouted from their trucks as they drove to the top of a slick stream bed, after two police vehicles and a helicopter circled overhead.
Less than 20 minutes later, the thousands of baby river turtles slunk down the flooded bank, their orange hats resting firmly on their neck, as the nearest tree offered a shelter.
The reptiles were released under the eagle’s eye of Captain Ollier Henkvelt, a senior official in Peru’s national park system and the bird of paradise’s guardian in it.
The first baby turtles in the age range of three to 15 weeks were given to a number of people in government offices, hoping to entice them with a chance to see a baby turtle and live a little more for a bit longer.
“From here they will spread out to wherever they get to. The plan is to put those parts of the baby turtles around Peru,” Henkvelt said.
But as well as encouragement to be active, the turtles offer another cautionary tale: that illegal wildlife smuggling still plays a major role.
The reptiles, after going airborne, glided along the muddy stream bed in a picture that captured the maddening, force-feeding frenzy of baby turtles – if they survive – in the midst of the Amazon rainforest.
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After the hatches are opened, so-called “mophicides”, a highly poisonous substance, are then dropped in to drain the water from the youngsters.
“The government of Peru does not believe this is right. We don’t want to see baby turtles dying,” said Carlos Pantoja, a spokesman for the Peruvian government, as the reptiles were released.
Pantoja added that he had just returned from a trip to Bolivia, where he raised the alarm about the use of the mophamine in the Amazon forest.
He acknowledged that while a handful of countries had banned the use of mophicides, most of the world still practises them.
At least 89,000 baby river turtles were trafficked in 2017, with several lost to illegal traffickers or eaten illegally, according to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, WWF said. The WWF blames coca cultivation – the main drug grown in Peru – and humans for harming the reptiles.
“’Avoiding abandonment’ of the turtles is key to their survival. Killing or setting their eggs and hatchlings free far away from their home territory will result in much lower numbers,” WWF says on its website.
The Peruvian government says that 6,000 turtle nests, apparently harvested from the nests of turtles stolen during smuggling attempts, have been found by enforcement officers over the past six months.
According to Pantoja, many of those turtles came from Bolivia.
When their nests fail to hatch, as a drought during the rainy season can do, the babies can make their way across Bolivia and into Peru, through the open borders which make such movements possible.