I’ve decided to start with the facts. Last October, I left the country for the first time in my life. First international flight, first international experience. My destination was Isla Palo Seco, a small island on the Western coast of Costa Rica for a week of environmental conservation with thirteen of my fellow classmates. Our job was to complete several environmental projects over the course of the week, all across the island. Our main responsibility was to engage in nightly turtle walks, in which we would walk the nine kilometer long beach on the island every night in search of potential turtle nests. Turtle conservation efforts had started on the island several years before, in order to protect several key species, many of which were endangered, or whose populations were dramatically declining due to widespread poaching across the country.
Costa Rica first outlawed the taking of eggs from turtle nests back in 1966, in an effort to restore the declining sea turtle population. In 2002, the Law for the Protection, Conservation, and Recuperation of Sea Turtle Populations was introduced, which stated that anyone who “kills, hunts, captures, decapitates, or disturbs marine turtles” is mandated to at least three years in prison. In addition, “those who detain marine turtles with the intention of marketing or commercializing products made from marine turtles” will be given anything from three months to two years in prison.
However, despite national efforts to end the poaching of turtle nests, the poaching rate on Costa Rican turtle beaches is still close to 100%. How could that be? Why hasn’t anything changed? The problem lies in the fact that the poaching of turtle nests has taken place for centuries in Costa Rica, and is deeply rooted in its culture. People often take turtle eggs, in order to use it for either baking, or to sell them for great profits. As stated by Chevy, a Costa Rican man in an article for the Tico Times Directory:
“In the late 1960s, during the incredible arribadas massive pack trains of horses and donkeys carried away hundreds of millions of eggs collected by the hueveros (egg poachers), and at each nesting season. “Chevy” recalls that many Costa Ricans, living on the coast, remember the time when they were young, being sent to the beach by their parents, with sisters and brothers, to get sea turtle eggs. They would come back with baskets filled, within fifteen to thirty minutes. When money was needed, they would fill up a bunch more of baskets and sell them to local markets, restaurants and street vendors. “Back in those days one dollar was worth around 6-7 colons. Dozen eggs would be sold between 3 to four colones.”
Every night our job was to walk the beach at high tide, eyes scouring in the darkness for any sign of turtle footprints that would indicate the long journey a mother turtle had to make past the high tide line and into safety to lay a nest of 100 plus eggs. If we found a nest, we would dig up the hole, place the eggs carefully into a plastic bag, and then make the trek to the hatchery, where the eggs would be buried and (supposedly) kept safe from the poachers. There, the eggs would wait for about 45-55 days, until they finally broke free, to the top of the nest, ready to make their trek to the ocean.
While the experience was both eye-opening and rewarding, a thought kept nagging me in the back of my head. “What were we doing here?” The two Costa Rican men who led the turtle walks didn’t need us. Not really. If anything, we were slowing them down. When they took us on the walk, they had to slowly prod their way up and down the beach by foot. When they were by themself, they could easily make their way up and down the beach by bike, in less than half the time. They were the ones with all the knowledge, and technical advice. Besides raising awareness amongst ourselves, what were we really doing there?
I realize now that it wasn’t really our job “to save the turtles”. Not in this manner, at least. A better solution would have been to simply start with the kids. Specifically the kids of the Isla Palo Seco school, which was located directly across the street from the hatchery. The kids were highly invested in the conservation project on the island, running across the street every day during breeding season in order to check if any of the nests had hatched. They were taught the importance of protecting the sea turtles, and had first hand experience caring for them until they were ready to be released. They loved that hatchery, and all of the turtles in it. Why not start similar programs in other coastal communities? Make it about the kids. Add lessons into the curriculum stressing sustainability and the the role of the sea turtles within the greater ecosystem. Teach them the dangers of widespread poaching. Shift the responsibilities of the hatchery to the students, and bring them along on the turtle walks. Going around the problem, by using outsiders like myself won’t change the poaching rate for the long term. However, changing an entire generation’s perspective towards the importance of protecting endangered sea turtles? That’s another story.