The last egg
Each night during the leatherback turtle nesting season on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, a race takes place. A race for the precious turtle eggs between poachers, who demand a high price for the eggs on the black market, and conservationists who try to protect the Critically Endangered leatherback turtle population. By the end of each night, not a single egg is left on the beach.
“The eggs fetch one dollar each on the black market, and with an average clutch size of 80 eggs that is a lot of money”, explains Fabian Carrasco from Mexico, the onsite expedition scientist for Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST).
So citizen scientists/egg protectors patrol the beach each night, hoping to get to a turtle laying its nest before a poacher does. “We reached the turtle only five minutes before a poacher walked by. It is such a good feeling when you manage to save a clutch of eggs”, says Candice Cox, a research assistant from the USA.
When a nesting turtle is encountered, the volunteers carefully collect all the eggs, as well as measure and tag the animal. The eggs are then brought back to a fenced and guarded hatchery, where they are protected from poachers and other non-human predators until they hatch.
Biosphere Expeditions work closely on all this with LAST, and for the second year in a row a group of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists have been onsite, actively patrolling the beach and helping out with the important work.
Lindsay Hickman, an expedition participant from the UK considers “guarding the hatchery a big responsibility. And it feels very good to know you are really helping.” At the time of writing, the hatchery held 4190 eggs, which amounts to over $4000 on the black market. “Without all the patrolling and safekeeping, 100% of the eggs would end up in bars and shops around the country, producing zero offspring, as has happened in the years before we took action”, explains Carrasco. “Turtle eggs are highly revered in Costa Rica, as they are believed to be an aphrodisiac. When turtles mate the male holds on to the female for several hours and the local legend is that by eating the eggs, this sexual stamina will be acquired. However, the actual mating only takes a couple of minutes and the eggs are in fact very high in cholesterol, and as such the effect is rather the opposite.”
To add insult to injury, each weekend poachers from surrounding areas also visit the beach, multiplying the number of poachers roaming the beach. “It is a known fact that on this beach there are few repercussions from poaching. However, the coastguard has started to visit the beach more often and I believe this is because we are around to put pressure on”, says Carrasco. “For example, last night was incredible. The coast guard arrested three poachers and rescued two clutches of eggs.” This is good news on all levels, not only did two nests get saved, but it also sends a message to other poachers that it is no longer safe to poach on this beach.
Biosphere Expeditions have also been testing out a new thermal camera to aid conservationists in detecting the turtles before poachers do. “I was impressed at how far away the thermal imaging system could detect a turtle” says Valeria, a local Costa Rican, funded by Biosphere Expeditions as part of its placement programme. “The nesting turtle could be spotted as a red blob on the screen from about 30 meters away, which gives us an edge over the poachers”.
Turtle on the beach
All in all the Biosphere Expeditions project saved eighteen nests, totalling 1397 eggs. “There is simply no substitute for ‘foot soldiers’ patrolling the beach at night. The volunteers by buying drinking coconuts, coconut oil and locally made jewellery also provide an income not based on poaching for the local community”, explains Carrasco. “And in this poor community without many options, this is vital”.
A selection of pictures of the expedition is below: