Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

The team are acclimatising to the heat and the night-time schedule. It’s always a treat when you meet a turtle in full swing, just minutes after leaving the research base, as happened to the first patrol the other night. The eggs were collected and taken to the hatchery where Carol and Sheila, battling with the biblical plague of crabs heading on land, also to lay their eggs, duly dug the chamber and relocated the clutch.

On the way back down the beach another turtle was discovered, demonstrating signs of camouflaging her nest, meaning that she had already laid, and was preparing to head back to sea. There were no signs of poaching activity, no sticks in the sand, no bare-foot prints, so the team, Irmtraut, Nicole and Catherine, attempted to dig up the eggs, but to no avail. As Irmtraut rightly said, “It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack!”

The next morning, we decided to enlist the help of Hernan, a once poacher, now guide with LAST, and for 30 minutes he poked around with a metal rod trying to find the nest. It was obvious that even for the professionals, this was not an easy job! The turtle had camouflaged her nest so well that we thought it was a lost cause until suddenly the rod went down with ease. He dug furiously until there they were, a cavern of white spheres.

Hernan finding the nest
Hernan finding the nest

Elated, Magali extracted the nest and then Janet and Ida helped to relocate it into the hatchery. It was a great sense of achievement, not only to have evaded the poachers, but to know that the nest is now safe from the elements too.

Magali extracting the eggs
Magali extracting the eggs
Janet placing the eggs into a nest in the hatchery
Janet placing the eggs into a nest in the hatchery
Bagged eggs
Bagged eggs

However, last night the poachers broke the unwritten code of conduct for the first time since its inception a few years ago. The agreement is basically peaceful coexistance and that whoever gets to a turtle first has the “rights” over the nest. Last night a team were with a turtle who was laying facing the sea. They collected the eggs and placed them in their bag a metre or so away, whilst they took the rest of the data. Suddenly, Jenny heard the crack of a branch and when she turned around, a shadowy figure disappeared into the night with the egg bag! We were all obviously shocked to hear of such a breach, and a formal complaint will be lodged with the coast guard and the police. Magali is confident, though, that the name of the poacher will come out amongst the community (which only numbers 35 people) within a couple of days, and that community will take appropriate action for fear of creating a rift between themselves and LAST – no one, not even the poachers want to disrupt the current system of tolerance.

You may ask why we do not report poachers every time and why this tolerance. The answer is simple. There is no or very little law enforcement in this area, so it’s just us and the community, some of whom are poachers. The alternative to peaceful tolerance would be aggressive squabbling, which would get us nowhere fast. Without the cooperation of the community, we would have no chance to change hearts and minds away from a poaching culture. And agressive confrontation on pitch dark beaches in the middle of the night is not what we want either, nor are the poachers “bad” people. In this community of severe poverty, little education, few opportunities and some alcohol and drug-related problems too, our “poaching” may be their subsistance. We accept this and work hard to turn poachers into patrol leaders and provide alternative means of income, such as employing people from the community as patrol leaders, cooks, service providers or encouraging them to grow food that can be sold to the research station or making souvenirs for volunteers. Without us, poaching would be 100%. With us around it is between 60% and 35%, depending on the year. It’s a long game and, with the help of our volunteers, we’re in for the long haul, not futile, short-lived fights on the beaches.

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

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