This time we hear from Laura Exley, wildlife biologist and Co-Founder/President of sea turtle conservation and community development project COPROT (Comunidad Protectora de Tortugas de Osa). Laura moved to Costa Rica several years ago, and has more recently founded COPROT, on the Osa Peninsula, which aims to protect the nesting sea turtle population in the area as well as providing sustainable job opportunities for locals. A huge thanks to Laura for taking the time to answer these questions, and we hope you all enjoy reading about her successes so far!
What made you want to work in conservation? What was your inspiration?
I am totally in love with nature, and for me it only makes sense to try and find solutions to the current problems that are facing the healthy future of our planet.
What steps led you to where you are today?
I took a BSc Animal Science, but from there initially began to work in zoos in the UK. Zoo work quickly made me realise that conservation in situ was the way for me, so from there I found my first field research position in Mexico studying howler monkey foraging strategies. Although I love research, I am definitely more a people person. My jobs have slowly evolved to have a much more community focus over time, and definitely enjoy seeing how conservation can have a positive effect on the local area. I have never undertaken postgraduate education, and do not feel it has negatively affected my career so far.
How did you end up in your current job?
Totally by accident! I was taking a break from field work in Mexico due to injury, and ended up on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. I found a job there as PM for a conservation organisation after falling in love with the area, and through that found my connection with the community and the incredible location. Identifying the issues that were going in the area at the time sparked the idea to start a sea turtle conservation organisation with local community members.
What is your favourite aspect of your job?
The diversity of the work across the course of a week. I get restless quite quickly and don't do very well with routine, so having a role that varies so greatly is ideal for me. One day I could be patrolling the beaches and collecting data, the next teaching school groups, and another working on the computer organising volunteer arrivals.
What was your proudest moment as a conservationist so far?
Definitely having a successful first year with my own project! Starting these things is always quite scary and the prospect of failure is always in the back of your mind, so getting through a full season and still have a smile on my face is a great feeling!
What gives you hope for the future of conservation?
I feel a movement is happening, and that people are finally starting to wake up. There is still A LOT to do, but the number of conservation warriors is on the increase and I am feeling positive.
What advice would you give to young conservationists trying to build a career?
You have to put yourself out there as much as possible! Conservation is a highly competitive industry, and good paid jobs are scarce compared to the number of people applying for them. Networking and developing relationships within the industry is key, as you never know what opportunities may arise.
What are your future career goals?
I would like to develop the project to the point where we are able to provide a considerable number of jobs to local people that would otherwise be involved in environmentally damaging activities, and protect the full area of nesting beach between Corcovado National Park to the nearest town of Puerto Jimenez (some 35km of coastline).
How did COPROT start?
I had been in connection with the gold mining community members while I was working in the area with another organisation, also working with sea turtles. One of the community members approached me one day to explain their critical situation and need for support, and asked if there was anything they could get involved in. We decided to try and get a sea turtle conservation project going and motivate the community to collaborate, in the hope that we could develop it to the point where we were able to provide jobs. Employment of this type would mean that they would not have to enter the national park illegally to mine for gold (which generally incorporates wildlife hunting also), and their quality of life would improve greatly.
What conservation issues are COPROT dealing with?
Our main issues are predation of turtle nests by semi-feral dogs/native mammals, high tides and erosion of the beaches, and increasing temperatures (the latter two points considered as climate change effects). We do have some poaching of nests, but it is definitely not our biggest concern as our beach is so isolated.
We also have a large gold-mining community nearby in the mountain areas that can cause a lot of damage to primary rainforest areas, as well as being involved in hunting wildlife. They also have a large number of dogs that come down to the beaches to feed on the turtle eggs, which can be very intense during the high season!
Can you give an insight into what an average day is like on the project?
We carry out daily turtle patrols both morning and night, which can take between 2-10 hours depending on activity levels. We also normally have a hatchery running from July/August onwards which takes a lot of time, as this needs to be monitored almost constantly. In between these responsibilities, assistants and volunteers could be working on our garden and greenhouse (we we working towards self-sustainability), construction or art projects, data input and organisation, beach cleans, talks or educational activities, fundraising etc…there is always a lot to do! We always eat lunch and dinner together, and have electricity and wifi free evenings with card games and chats before a group heads out into the night again!
How does your organisation interact with the local community?
Our organisation is community driven, and aims to empower local people to take a lead in the conservation efforts. We also work hard to provide educational outreach and support to local people that wish to get involved in the project. We have a number of collaborators in the gold mining community that have worked with us since the start, and we are constantly seeking more funding to be able to contract more individuals and reduce damage to the National Park.
What are COPROT's biggest achievements?
I think that the initiation process was the biggest mountain to climb! The community that we work in can be quite difficult, and getting people to work together has been tricky.
Another achievement would be registering over 4000 new nests this season, and protecting more than 80% of them! This is a huge output of hatchlings, and feels amazing when you see them all running down the beach.
What are the long-term goals for the organisation?
Our long term goals are to really make a shift in the community, and drive the area into conservation and ecotourism. The Osa Peninsula is an extremely biodiverse area and has many unique ecosystems which are so important to protect, so if we can provide employment opportunities in the conservation of this amazing area and improve the quality of life for local people at the same time it will be a win all round!
COPROT takes volunteers and Research Assistants throughout the season (June – April), and are always looking for people who want to get involved directly in the conservation work. For more information about how to support the organisation and get involved have a look at their social media pages on Facebook and Instagram.