Costa Rican sea turtles protector found dead on the beach.
The 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval regularly patrolled a beach near Limón to protect sea turtles and their eggs from poachers, people who want to steal the eggs for sale. Last year he and his team of volunteers were ambushed by gunmen. The volunteers were able to escape, but he was tied up, beaten and shot in the head. (Source: Costa Rican Turtle Defender Found Slain on the Beach He Patrolled)
There are many organizations working on the protection of sea turtles. Four of the seven species are threatened with extinction because the turtles are caught with other fish or get stuck in abandoned fishing nets and drown.
Although a sea turtle lays about 100 eggs, only few of them mature. That is a natural process: when they crawl out of their eggs, on their way to the sea, they need to conquer all kinds of natural threats. Birds find such a turtle a nice snack, and once in the sea, sharks would like a bite-sized little turtle.
Unfortunately, because of humans, even fewer eggs turn into adult turtles. The little turtles find their way to the sea because their natural instinct says to go to the light. In our present society, most of the light is no longer coming from the sea horizon, but from land. So the little turtles turn towards land, with greater chances of getting lost or getting eaten. But before they even have any chance of getting lost, eggs are stolen from the nests. The eggs are considered an aphrodisiac and sold on the black market.
To protect the eggs there are various organizations who have local experts and volunteers patrol the beach. This means walking up and down an appointed sector of the beach for four hours in the middle of the night without flashlights, to see if a turtle has come ashore to lay eggs. (This patrol is unarmed, contrary to what some new volunteers think: do we get guns? Uh, no).
When the turtles are on land, ready to lay the eggs, the local expert checks her health (checking if she has wounds by fishing hooks or boat propellers) and a volunteer lays stretched out behind her, holding a plastic bag to catch her 100 eggs.
These eggs are then taken to the so-called hatchery. The eggs are buried in a nest again by other volunteers, and they guard the hatchery day and night in a shift of six hours.
It was during such a patrol this young man was killed because of his work (and presumably because of his statements in the media). It’s not new that nature and wildlife protectors are killed because of their activities. However, this particular story got to me more, because the beach where it happened, is about 70 kilometers north of the site where I did the same work as a volunteer. We also experienced violence while we were patrolling the beach at night.
At the time of Semana Santa (Holy Easter Week), there were many tourists, who hoped to get a glimpse of a sea turtle during their tour at night. At a certain point there was a turtle on land to make her nest. But a sea turtle is very sensitive to disturbances on land. Even “little things” like a tree trunk lying on her path makes her go back to the sea. Bustle is also something that upsets a sea turtle. If she has come ashore a couple of times to lay her eggs, but she can’t, then she releases her eggs into the sea.
Therefore, it is of great importance that a turtle succeeds in laying her eggs in peace, each time she comes ashore. The group of tourists, however, wanted to see her and stood in front of her. Something which is unacceptable. People from the organization asked the group to stand behind the turtle. The response was the physical attacking of someone from the organization, and a fight started. At the end things turned out well – besides a few scratches and bruises – but after this incident the government sent police to patrol the beach to protect the people patrolling the beach for the turtles…
But then I discovered something that surprised me: the person who attacked was not just a tourist.
He was a family member of one of the local experts. And later I heard that the poachers often were family of those who worked for the organization. Everyone knew who the poachers were, and as they walked along, we heard as if it were the most normal thing in the world, “that’s my uncle.” It is actually not surprising, because everything took place in a very small village, far away from other villages and cities, which consisted of three big extended families. All of those involved – local experts, poachers, tourist guides, homeowners renting rooms to volunteers – were related.
You could naively think: if the poachers are you family members and you want to protect the turtles, you could persuade or pressure your family member to quit poaching and get another job, instead of having people collect those eggs, bury them in a hatchery, and guard them?
But if I think about the whole, I realize: if there aren’t any poachers, the eggs don’t need to be protected, and there won’t be any work for the local experts. Volunteers won’t come and spend money on accommodation and food, which was provided by other family members. In fact, it had become a whole system in which most people (in this case the families) earned money with the protection of sea turtles, And even the volunteers would earn money from it later, by having a unique experience on their resume. It isn’t just “working for the good cause”.
Everyone would benefit from the situation if it remained as it was.
I certainly do not mean to say that people are deliberately maintaining problems. In personal conversations I had with the local experts, I got the impression that they really had a heart for nature and animals, and volunteers did not just work for their resume or the unique experience. And the problems are real: the turtles are really threatened with extinction, partially due to humans acts.
At the time, I do not do an extensive ethical analysis, so I don’t want to draw any hard conclusions and judgments. But one question keeps popping up:
If anyone has a particular benefit from the maintenance of the system of protecting species, do we really want to solve problems?