On a beautiful warm morning in the Caribbean, I was getting ready to snorkel. But on my way out the door, I noticed my usually cheerful landlord, Orvin, looked particularly sad. So I asked him what was wrong.
“They foun’ five sea turtles dead on the beach this morning,” he said, his eyes downcast.
The turtles were all victims of long-line fishing and had drowned, he said.
Costa Rica’s Sea Turtles Are Suffering
As I made my way down to the beach, I found two of the victims — Atlantic green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). One washed up in an area that was inaccessible to me. She was surrounded by a crowd of black vultures and local dogs, but the one I walked down to looked as if someone had opened her with a can opener. Her plastron (the bony plates covering a turtle’s belly) and her carapace (the actual shell itself) had been split apart and all of her insides removed with surgical precision. A few crumpled eggs were scattered around her.
An Atlantic green sea turtle and it’s mirror image reflected in the water. Image license CC SA 4.0 by Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons
Tears welled in my eyes. I was angry. Angry that someone could do this to such an innocent creature. Another woman, also saddened by such cruelty cast sad eyes over the scene.
“Mala suerte!” (Bad luck), she said.
She walked away slowly with her head held down, and I got down to the business of snorkeling. But on this sunny morning in my part of the Caribbean, it was a dark, depressing day. I shall always remember it that way.
There are several sea turtle species in Costa Rica and according to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, all of them are listed as either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. All due to human greed and selfishness.
Largely thanks to a law passed in 2002, it’s illegal to hunt, kill or in any way traffic sea turtles here. And for the most part, with the exception of Playa Ostional on the country’s Pacific coast, it’s also illegal to take sea turtle eggs. Shrimp vessels here are also required to use turtle excluding devices on shrimp nets. However, like most governments in developing countries, Costa Rica’s is vastly under-funded and corrupt. The poaching of turtle eggs is still widespread in this country, and largely popular among vicious drug gangs. And sea turtles themselves are still poached.
My partner and I live in Límon Province, Costa Rica and Playa Moín is probably the most dangerous beach in Costa Rica. It’s not really far from where we live. Gangs often steal the precious eggs which are mostly those of the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) or baula. These can go for a dollar or more each.
When you consider the fact that one female leatherback can lay up to 100 eggs in one go, and that hundreds of these turtles visit the beaches here when they lay eggs every night during the egg-laying season, obviously poaching is quite profitable. And for many people in Costa Rica, sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy.
A female Leatherback turtle in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Image license CC SA 2.0 by Bernard DUPONT via Wikimedia Commons
And when I say these gangs are vicious, I’m not exaggerating. In 2013, turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval was brutally murdered for protecting these magnificent turtles and their eggs. Other volunteers were with him at the time, and most were women. They were tied up and sexually assaulted. Jairo was stripped naked, brutally beaten and dragged through the mud until he suffocated. At just 26-years-old, his death caused an international firestorm and sparked protests throughout Costa Rica and elsewhere.
Murdered conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval. Image license CC SA 3.0 by Christine Figgener via Wikimedia Commons
Of the seven men who were charged with his murder, three were acquitted, but four others were found guilty for the murder and the sexual assaults and robberies. They received sentences ranging from 74 to 90 years, The Tico Times reports.
While the repercussions of Jairo’s murder made an impact, turtles are still poached for their meat, eggs and beautiful shells. Most Costa Ricans no longer consume turtle meat, but the eggs of these prehistoric reptiles continue to be widely poached and their shells made into souvenirs for tourists.
The unidentified young man with a cache of turtle eggs said they were given to local conservationists. The journalist in this 2015 report for ABC News expressed skepticism, however. Image by ABC News
There’s even a man who goes up and down our barrio selling sea turtle eggs and he calls out a little song to announce this to everyone. I just want to go outside and smack him upside the head every time I hear him. Sea turtle eggs are poached in staggering numbers worldwide, and he’s still acting as if they are an inexhaustible resource.
Most, if not all sea turtle species travel widely. The map below shows the distribution of leatherback sea turtles.
The range of the leatherback sea turtle. Image license CC SA 3.0 by PinPin via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a brief look at Costa Rica’s other sea turtles.
Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)
A hawksbill turtle surveys its surroundings. Image license CC SA 3.0 by Tom Doeppner via Wikimedia Commons
Hawksbills are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, and much of this is due to unscrupulous harvesting by the jewelry trade. Their shells are gorgeous and can be polished to reveal a deeply mottled pattern. They have been exploited by this industry for more than 100 years.
Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea)
This olive Ridley sea turtle is returning to the sea after laying her eggs. Image license CC SA 2.0 by Brad Flickinger via Wikimedia Commons
Found on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, their eggs are still poached, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) reports. While their numbers may seem large (recent estimates show there may be as many as 800,000 female olive ridley sea turtles). Even so, the IUCN lists them as vulnerable. They were heavily hunted for their meat in the past and their numbers have never recovered.
Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta)
Loggerhead turtle. Image license CC Attribution 2.0 by Damien du Toit via Wikimedia Commons
For loggerheads, the greatest threat they face throughout their range is habitat loss caused by coastal development. According to estimates, there are between 40,000 to 50,000 nesting females. The IUCN lists them as vulnerable.
Another threat to sea turtles? Artificial lighting
Hatchling turtles are easily confused by artificial lights near the shore. Instinct tells them to head for moonlight, which is over the ocean. However, if there’s artificial light around, they mistake it for moonlight and head inland, away from their ocean home. And that’s almost always 100 percent fatal for these innocent babies.
There are actually a number of other threats sea turtles face, and I’d have to write an encyclopedia to list them all. You can, however, find out more about that here.
All is not lost for Costa Rica’s sea turtles
This is not to say the government hasn’t tried to sea turtles. At least 50 percent of the country’s sea turtle nesting sites are located within protected areas (even though poaching is still at critically high levels). But there are also plenty of nesting areas that aren’t located in these areas, so the country’s Ministry of The Environment (MINAET) held a series of workshops. These workshops included scientists, members of the community, government officials, and members from non-profit organizations and they were geared towards finding effective conservation strategies for sea turtle nesting sites that aren’t located in protected areas.
Now here’s where you come in
It’s a start at the very least, and there are many devoted organizations that encourage volunteers to help keep sea turtles and their eggs safe. If you’re interested, why not check this out? Or, you can volunteer here.
Keep in mind that these places also take donations.
And this cheerful video below, featuring beautiful little olive Ridley hatchlings, is inspiring.
Featured image license CC SA 3.0 by Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons
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