Diego Amorocho’s first career had to wash away before he found his life’s work.
While director of a national park in Colombia, Amorocho monitored an area with more than 60 kilometers of sea turtle nesting beaches. Sea turtles are one of the Earth's most ancient and threatened creatures, having been around for 120 million years. However, his team kept bringing in dead female turtles, killed by dogs right before they laid their eggs.
“I was patrolling the beaches, I saw this disaster and that’s where my story starts,” Amorocho said. “I started by sending letters to people in different places around the world, asking them to help us do something to protect these animals from what was basically a massacre.”
Soon thereafter he was recruited to do a complete survey of the state of sea turtles along Colombia’s Pacific coast. He spent three or four months “walking every piece” of the 1,300 kilometers of coastline, to establish a baseline for the state of sea turtles in Colombia.
While studying a tiny stretch of beach popular with nesting turtles in the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena biodiversity hotspot, a flash flood swept away everything he had.
“All my notes, all my equipment, the whole setup was gone with the flood,” Amorocho explained. “I was so upset. I mean, here I am trying to help nature and the very same nature is working against me, destroying everything I am trying to do.”
Angry about the loss of months of research, Amorocho withdrew from the world and tried to refocus himself near another popular nesting beach for sea turtles. He noticed people walking the beach every day, killing the females and poaching the eggs.
“That was when I stopped being a researcher and I became a conservationist,” Amorocho said. “I felt I had to do something, and I wanted to put my hands on a solution to the problem instead of just studying it.”
He now works in Gorgona National Park, on a small island off the shore of Colombia in the southwest Pacific, where he focuses on building relationships with the people who live nearby. Most are fishermen who catch turtles with their gear, sometimes by accident and sometimes intentionally.
Amorocho started educating them about sea turtle protection, and established the Research Center for Environmental Management and Development. With some guidance from Conservation International’s Conservation Stewards Program, Amorocho worked with the local community to design a conservation agreement: When they snag a turtle on their line, someone trained by his staff releases it. If the turtles are very injured they are taken to a marine turtle rehabilitation center. Once the turtles are treated they are sent back to the sea. In return, his organization offers improved fishing gear such as safer nets and hooks less likely to snare turtles, and fuel to replace what they spent getting the injured turtles to the rehabilitation center. They also train the fishermen to work on the project.
“Many are not fishermen by choice, so we teach them how to write, how to read, they become more confident in themselves and they grow,” Amorocho said. “They give talks to their peers, to other fishermen in other localities, and try to get them to help.”
He set up a system in which the fishermen earn points from recovering injured turtles or providing information about turtles or poaching. The fisherman can redeem the points for anything from new hooks to boat motors to roofing materials for their home, thanks to funding and support from the Conservation Stewards Program, the Walton Family Foundation and other groups.
“This way we make sure that people are improving their livelihoods and getting some things that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible to them,” Amorocho said.
Over 10 years, he said, they’ve raised 150,000 hatchlings. And even more fulfilling to Amorocho: The first group of young local men he trained in conservation is teaching their children about protecting sea turtles.
“I feel very good about that, very proud, to see what I have done more than 10 years ago continues to have results,” Amorocho said.
Photo of Diego Amorocho: Courtesy of Diego Amorocho