Cotocá Arriba & the Magdalena River Turtle

For our fifth column in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. Julie Kunen, the Vice President for the Americas at WCS, travels to the Sinu River, not far from Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Along the Sinu River in northwest Colombia, a rural community called Cotocá Arriba had a long tradition of hunting the endemic Magdalena River Turtle. The meat and eggs were an important part of their food supply, but in recent decades the turtles began to disappear. Living only on the Sinu and Magdalena rivers, they are now critically endangered. In order to minimize the disruption to their way of life, the people of Cotocá Arriba are now protecting the turtles’ nesting beaches and eggs.

Arriving in Montería in the early morning, about 30 miles south of Cotocá Arriba, our driver Don Rodolfo stopped off at a small café, Dayanera Kibbeh, with a few plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk. He explained that many people of Lebanese descent live in the secondary cities in the interior of Cordoba, and Montería is no exception. Our breakfast was kibbeh, the deep fried ground beef patties found in every Lebanese restaurant, followed with fresh-pressed orange juice from a cart nearby.

In Cotocá Arriba we were welcomed into the village in a lovely two-story open-air structure built in a communal effort to provide the villagers with a place to gather for meetings and classes and to receive visitors who come for lunch and to visit the nearby Ciénega de Baños, a beautiful wetland teaming with birds. The last bird census revealed over 164 species, including 74 different waterbirds, according to the community leader, further evidence as to why Colombia is the world’s richest country in terms of bird biodiversity. We saw many of these – cormorants, whistling ducks, black ibis, and the very attractive and very aptly named screamers – on a lovely paddle around the Ciénega.

As part of its turtle conservation efforts, a community association in Cotocá Arriba called Econbibo monitors turtle nesting beaches. When water is released from a large hydroelectric dam located far upstream, the group constructs artificially elevated sand banks to prevent the nests from flooding. Community members also rescue turtle eggs in danger of being lost to the flooding and incubate them in a specially built room until they hatch, then release them back into the river to help maintain healthy turtle populations. My colleagues and I would be fortunate to see several of them basking in the sun on semi-submerged logs or along the sandy banks of the river.

As part of the community association’s efforts, ecotourism is becoming more valuable than turtle hunting. They built a small tourist facility for visitors to the area featuring meals prepared by several different groups of villagers. These include the soup group (all women); the pig-butchering group (all men); and my favorite, the deep fried foods group (comprised of women whose specialties include deditos de queso, or fried cheese fingers). We were lucky enough to visit in time for lunch. Our plates featured boca chica, a widely consumed local river fish, fried in oil with onions and tomatoes. This was accompanied by lettuce salad with sweet onion and green tomatoes; coconut rice; and tostones, or fried plantains. To drink was a delicious fuchsia-colored juice called corozo, made from a local palm fruit that a bartender friend in Bogota told me is quite astringent in its raw form.

I was especially pleased that the attention and commitment to conservation spilled over into the foodways of the Econbibo people. Families that were previously reliant on the endangered species of turtle, both for their meat and eggs, are now working together to protect them and in their place they’re focusing on more sustainable resources around them. The community took ownership of their actions and environment by becoming part of a process that ultimately benefits the turtles as well as themselves. This collective effort is a perfect demonstration a conservation success.