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Turtle power: Panama gives legal rights to sea turtles, protecting against pollution and poaching

Sea turtles have been given legal rights in Panama.
Sea turtles have been given legal rights in Panama. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Angela Symons with AP
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Citizens can now be the voice of sea turtles and defend them legally in Panama.


A new law guarantees sea turtles in Panama the right to live and have free passage in a healthy environment.

It “will allow any Panamanian citizen to be the voice of sea turtles and defend them legally,” says Callie Veelenturf, who founded a group that works to protect leatherback turtles and pushed for the legislation.

“We will be able to hold governments, corporations and public citizens legally accountable for violations of the rights of sea turtles.”

Experts hope it's part of an evolution that will see other countries take similar steps to protect species under threat.

Whether the thinking behind Panama's law spreads more widely or not, it offers critical help for the country's sea turtles. Panama 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.

How does the new law protect sea turtles in Panama?

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.

“Business as usual laws aren’t doing enough to protect against the extinction crisis and climate change,” says Erica Lyman, a clinical law professor and director of the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. “This is an attempt at a new kind of framing that offers hope.”

Wildlife protection laws are typically passed because of some perceived benefit to humans, Erica says. Panama’s law instead considers what sea turtles need and the fact that humans should curb their behaviour to meet those needs, she said.

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, says Nicholas Fromherz, an adjunct law professor and director of the alliance’s Latin American Program.

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. 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.

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
A member of conservation organisation The Leatherback Project inspects the health of hatchlings from a nest on a beach near Armila, Panama, 20 May 2023.AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco

The law is protecting sea turtles from poaching

Since the law was signed in by Panama’s presidentin March, it has already been cited by the Sea Turtle Conservancy. The conservation organisation has used it 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, says David Godfrey, executive director of the Florida-based conservancy. It became a crisis - at one beach, up to 90 per cent of leatherback eggs were being taken, he says.

It was already illegal under Panamanian law to take sea turtles and their eggs from national parks and protected marine areas, David says, 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.

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.

A trend toward safeguarding the legal rights of animals

Panama’s new law came after Ecuador’s highest court in 2022 ruled that wild animals are rights-holders under the constitutional provisions for rights of nature. The case was about a monkey kept in a private home.

That was an important step in evolving the definition of nature from a site-specific or place-based concept, to include individual wild animals, Erica says.

Both Erica and Nicholas 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 recognised. That decision sharply criticised humanity's treatment of wild animals and drew on religious doctrine.

“There’s energy there,” Nicholas says.

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.

In Spain, personhood status was last year granted to Europe's largest salt-water lagoon.

Why do animals need legal rights?

Panama's law is a victory for people who have long argued that wild animals should have so-called rights of nature that recognise their legal right to exist and to flourish, and allow for lawsuits if those rights are violated. 


Laws like this are needed because recognising that animals have legal rights opens up a pathway to safeguarding those rights and protections in court, says 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 says.

Despite ecotourism returning, David says 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," says David. “And it’s refreshing to see a nation take that stance.”

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