Inocencio “Chencho” Castillo is a petite, yet sturdy man. His gait is slightly uneven, each step measured with care. He has an unassuming face that widens every so often when a smile forces his lips apart to reveal a toothless grin.
Sometimes he smiles at the litter of kittens that run in and around his house, sometimes at his neighbors as they pass.
He spends most of his time sitting on his porch, as do most people in Isla Colon, keeping watch of his barrio in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
“Mostly, I just stay quiet and drink coffee,” he chuckles softly.
When he’s not tending to the neighborhood cats, watching his neighbors or keeping to himself, Chencho works to protect an endangered species of turtles, the hawksbill sea turtle.
After a few moments, he gets up from his chair and pushes past the frayed, orange cotton curtain that lead to his room. He returns cradling a small glass jar in his leathered hands — hands that have spent years pulling hundreds of fish from the sea.
“Have you ever seen this before?” Chencho asks, though he already knows the answer.
The jar holds a dead two-headed, hawksbill sea turtle. “It only lived for 24 hours,” he said.
Chencho did what he could to save the special turtle — he took it home, put in a pool of water and prepared lobster for the turtle to eat. Despite his efforts, the turtle died.
This wasn’t the first hawksbill sea turtle to die in Chencho’s hands, but this turtle’s death carried a different weight.
A Population in Peril
Hawksbill sea turtles are a reflection of the vibrant coral reefs they inhabit.
Their oval-shaped shells range in color from deep to golden brown, painted with streaks of red, orange and black that mirror the coral reef’s colors. While the turtles nest in the reefs, they can migrate more than 1,000 miles to find food.
The hawksbill’s ability to crawl into, crush, crunch and into sponges — its primary source of food — gives the turtle its name.
While the turtle’s mouth resembles the rounded, sharp beak of a hawk, one can’t help but notice the turtle’s uncanny resemblance to Chencho.
Perhaps it's the turtle’s own toothless grin or its leathered back. Maybe it’s the wavering gait it has as it crawls across the shore, leaving uneven patterns in the sand.
It could be that both the hawksbill and men like Chencho are disappearing. Hawksbills are on the brink of extinction and local conservationists, like Chencho who care about the turtles, are outnumbered by tourists and locals alike who don’t know about the fragility of hawksbills’ population.
In the last century alone, there has been a devastating decline in the population of hawksbill turtles -- over 80 percent have disappeared.
The Caribbean is home to almost 30 percent of the world’s hawksbill population. The corals in Panama used to be one of their most important nesting destinations in the world.
But the need to survive — to circumvent poverty — and to enjoy luxury has had damning effects on the turtles.
According to a 2008 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Japan imported more than 1.3 million hawksbill shells, also known as tortoiseshells or bekko in Japanese markets, between the 1950s and 1990s. During this same time, Panama exported more than 150,000 hawksbills to Japan.
“In those days, Japan bought turtle shells from us,” Chencho recalls. “And you would sleep on the beach just to get the tortoiseshell because it was worth $50 per pound. You just can’t imagine how many people were waiting on the beach with harpoons, with hope.”
A study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's main authority on the conservation status of species and promoters of their conservation, revealed that Panama was the most important source of hawksbills to Japan’s bekko industry during this time.
“Panama hosted the region’s largest nesting Hawksbill assemblages until the latter part of the 20th Century,” the report revealed.
Japanese artisans used the tortoiseshell to make beautiful jewelry boxes, combs and ornaments. They were willing to pay impoverished fishermen money for the precious shells, but the beauty came at a cost.
During these same years, the hunting of hawksbills dramatically reduced the nesting population in Chiriqui Beach. According to research produced by Peter Meylan, a professor at Eckerd College and researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the hawksbill nesting populations declined by 98 percent in Chiriqui Beach.
Meylan is among many scientists who believe there are only 20,000 nesting hawksbill females remaining in the world. The hunting of these turtles is only worsening.
A Conservationist Change
Today, the isles of Panama are critical for the restoration of hawksbills, as are men like Chencho.
Chencho spends many days each year on Zapatilla Island, a small island where hawksbill turtles nest. He cleans them, feeds them and protects others from stealing their eggs — he’s their watchman.
But Chencho did not always help save the turtles like the one he kept in that jar.
He used to kill them.
“I was in the hunting business for a long time when I was young,” he said. “You did it just to have money. You become a hunter just because people want to eat turtle. There used to be some people who would buy whatever amount of hawksbills you brought. But later the government intervened and told us: ‘You have to stop, and this business has to come to a close.’”
Chencho was recruited to help research sea turtles in the islands of Bocas del Toro by Drs. Peter and Anne Meylan, an American couple who have dedicated their lives to research and conservation efforts of sea turtles.
“One day, I saw a few gringos walking closer my house and I was like, ‘What are they looking for?’” Chencho recalls. “They were looking for my house, asking for Chencho. Another man was with them and brought them to the house. They were looking for my help to work with nets and other stuff, but not to kill fish.”
In the early 1980s, Anne Meylan was sent to Bocas del Toro to do research under the auspices of Archie Carr, renowned scientist and pioneering sea turtle conservationist. Carr, Meylan and three other researchers conducted the West Atlantic Surveys with local turtle fishers in an effort to remove turtles, such as hawksbills, from the endangered species category and restore their populations.
It was in these surveys that Anne and Peter Meyland learned of Chencho from a famed Jamaican fisherman, Policarpio “Poli” Jessie. Poli and Chencho fished turtles together for many years. But Poli and Chencho’s relationship took a turn around the same time the Meylans arrived to Bocas del Toro. Poli wouldn’t stop killing sea turtles.
In one summer, Poli and Chencho caught, killed and sold the meat of 400 green sea turtles. The market, however, didn’t want the sea turtles like it once had. The prices for meat and tortoiseshells were dropping. And, more importantly, Chencho felt convicted for killing the sea turtles — perhaps for the first time.
This feeling was enough to convince him to stop killing sea turtles.
In 1987, the Meylans received a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York, formerly known as the New York Zoological Society, to transition from interviewing fishermen to netting sea turtles for their research.
But they couldn’t do it alone. They knew they needed Chencho’s expertise of the turtles, the sea and the land. Luckily for the Meylans, they didn’t have to convince him to help them.
“It was working with Poli that pissed him off so bad,” Peter Meylan said. “When we went to talk to him, he said, ‘Yes, this is great.’”
It took some convincing from his wife along with the promise and security of a job that made Chencho change.
“My wife told me to take the chance, to see if things would turn out for the better,” Chencho said. “And since 1989, I’ve seen the changes. A conservationist change.”
For more than 26 years, Chencho has been working alongside the Meylans to help in their efforts to restore the hawksbill population.
“A lot of what we learned, we learned by working with Chencho,” Peter Meylan said.
Efforts to repopulate the coral with hawksbill turtles will help restore biodiversity in the reefs and improve the coral’s health.
The hawksbill is the only sea turtle that eats the glass-like sponges. These sponges compete for space with reef-building corals, Meylan said. Without the hawksbill, sponges would overtake the coral reef and all the species that inhabit it.
Scientists agree: hawksbills are critical to the health of the reef. But the conservation efforts haven’t been easy.
Poaching of nesting female turtles, predators like local cats and dogs, as well as the rise of tourism and development in Bocas del Toro are all threats, according to Meylan.
“Scientists say that out of a thousand turtles, just one can survive. But I don’t believe that,” Chencho says. “I think that number is too little.”
Despite the turtles’ harrowing fate, Chencho remains optimistic for the turtles — perhaps due to his own change of heart.
“I've changed a lot. The first time I came [to Zapatilla] was just for money. lt is different now,” he says. “A few years ago I became angry because of whatever nonsense, not now… Not anymore. I'm different now. I didn’t like cats; now I love cats. If I can help a cat, I do. And it’s the same with dogs.”
And it’s the same with turtles.