On a Panamanian beach long after dark, a group of undergraduate students dug into the sand to excavate a sea turtle nest, their lamps casting a soft red glow as they studied eggs, inventoried the success of the hatch and checked for any surviving hatchlings stuck at the bottom of the nest. Nearby, armed members of the National Border Service stood watch for protection in an area known for drug trafficking.
The students worked under the guidance of Callie Veelenturf, who founded a group that works to protect leatherback turtles and pushed for a new law in Panama that guarantees sea turtles the legal right to live and have free passage in a healthy environment.
The new law “will allow any Panamanian citizen to be the voice of sea turtles and defend them legally,” Veelenturf said in a text message as she boarded a plane to Panama City after her group's work near Armila. “We will be able to hold governments, corporations, and public citizens legally accountable for violations of the rights of sea turtles.”
When Panama’s president signed the law in March, it was a victory for people who have long argued that wild animals should have so-called rights of nature that recognize their legal right to exist and to flourish, and allow for lawsuits if those rights are violated. Experts hope it's part of an evolution that will see other countries take similar steps to protect species under threat.
“Business as usual laws aren’t doing enough to protect against the extinction crisis and climate change,” said Erica Lyman, a clinical law professor and director of the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. “This is an attempt at a new kind of framing that offers hope.”
Wildlife protection laws typically are passed because of some perceived benefit to humans, Lyman said. Panama’s law instead considers what sea turtles need and the fact that humans should curb their behavior to meet those needs, she said.
The law gives sea turtles the right to an environment free of pollution and other human impacts that cause physical or health damage, like climate change, incidental capture, coastal development and unregulated tourism.
What makes the law remarkable is that it explicitly says sea turtles, as living creatures, have rights, and with enough specificity that those rights can be enforced, added Nicholas Fromherz, an adjunct law professor and director of the alliance’s Latin American Program.
Panama’s new law came after Ecuador’s highest court in 2022 ruled in a case about a monkey kept in a private home that wild animals are rights-holders under the constitutional provisions for rights of nature. That was an important step in evolving the definition of nature from a site-specific or place-based concept, to include individual wild animals, Lyman said.
Both Lyman and Fromherz saw Panama's law and recent judicial rulings as evidence of a trend toward safeguarding the legal rights of animals. Besides the Ecuador case, a Pakistan court in 2020 — ruling on a case that included an elephant's captivity in a zoo — held that animals have natural rights that should be recognized. That decision sharply criticized humanity's treatment of wild animals and drew on religious doctrine.
“There’s energy there,” Fromherz said.
And the movement is broader than animals. In Minnesota, for example, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe passed a tribal law granting legal rights to wild rice, then made it a plaintiff in a tribal court lawsuit in 2020 seeking to stop an oil pipeline. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.
Whether the thinking behind Panama's law spreads more widely or not, it's critical help for sea turtles in that country, which has some of the most important nesting spots in the world for leatherback sea turtles and hawksbill sea turtles. One beach area has about 3,000 hawksbill nests per year.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy is already citing the new law to call for Panama's police and natural resource managers to intervene at one critical leatherback turtle nesting site that faces intense pressure from illegal egg hunters.
When the pandemic halted ecotourism, people who lost their main source of income began harvesting sea turtle eggs and some nesting turtles to sell for meat and their shells, said David Godfrey, executive director of the Florida-based conservancy. It became a crisis — at one beach, up to 90% of leatherback eggs were being taken, he said.
It was already illegal under Panamanian law to take sea turtles and their eggs from national parks and protected marine areas, Godfrey said, but it was unclear whether doing so was prohibited outside of those places and the law was sparsely enforced. Turtle protection groups, including the conservancy, lobbied for legislation that would offer clear protection for sea turtles, better monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, including financial penalties.
Panama's law is explicit about the implications for irresponsible developers, tourism operators and others who disrupt sea turtle habitats, instructing agencies to cancel operating permits, Fromherz said. It clearly prohibits all domestic and international commerce in sea turtles, parts and eggs, with a narrow exception for subsistence use by select traditional communities, he added.
A committee is overseeing the full implementation of the law, including research, monitoring and efforts to raise awareness and promote ecotourism as an alternative to harvesting sea turtles and their eggs.
Laws like this are needed because recognizing that animals have legal rights opens up a pathway to safeguarding those rights and protections in court, said Christopher Berry, a managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
“Making sure there is a way to actually enforce a violation of these rights when a violation happens is really an incredibly important animal law issue that doesn’t get enough attention,” he said.
Despite ecotourism returning, Godfrey said people are still taking nesting sea turtles and eggs at greater levels than before the pandemic to sell for extra income. He expects the conservancy will try to get other countries throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean to adopt similar legislation, assuming it's as effective as they hope.
“These animals have a right to exist, whether or not they benefit us. They do happen to benefit us in many ways. But they have a right to exist, even if they don’t," Godfrey said. “And it’s refreshing to see a nation take that stance.”
McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island.
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