Direct effects of citizen science
On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs each night during the early February to late May nesting season. The Caribbean leatherback turtles is listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list and one of the main threats to its survival is poaching of eggs. In Costa Rica turtle eggs are believed to be an aphrodisiac and sell for about $2 per egg, a significant sum of money. Poachers roam the beaches at night stealing the eggs from female turtles coming ashore to build their nest. Conservation projects have been established along the beaches to combat this problem. Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) run such a project, with Biosphere Expeditions providing citizen scientist volunteers.
At the beginning of the nesting season, a hatchery is constructed and then guarded 24 hours a day, keeping poachers away. Eggs from turtles encountered during the nightly beach patrols are relocated there. “The first year I was here, in 2016, we encountered several teams of poachers each night” says Biosphere Expeditions leader Ida Vincent, “but this year I have seen far fewer”. The data collected by the citizen scientist teams supports this observations: In the previous two years about 50 percent of nests were lost to poachers, but in the 2018 season only 20 percent appear to have been poached, with 80 percent safely developing in the hatchery. “There are a few reasons why the number of poachers has dropped” explains Fabian Carrasco, the onsite scientist from LAST, “last year four poachers were arrested by the Coast Guard, which has scared other poachers from returning this season. We have also been sending out a lot of patrols each night, which is deterring poachers. With more citizen scientists on the beach each night than poachers, the numbers are simply against them and we are more likely to encounter a turtle before they are.”
There has also been an increase in employment in the village and as such the need to poach for income has decreased. LAST is part of this effort through their guide programme, which trains former poachers to be patrol guides and therefore protect, rather than poach eggs. “Their knowledge of spotting turtles and collecting eggs makes them expert turtle finders and with a steady income, the incentive to poach is much reduced”, explains Carrasco. LAST have also set up a weekly market day when people from the community come to the research station selling their goods (fresh fruit, homemade coconut cake and turtle-themed souvenirs) to the visiting citizen scientists. One of them is Talar Attarian from the USA, who says that “it’s wonderful to support the locals, providing an alternative income to poaching”.
Below are some pictures (thanks to Georg Berg and Nicole Stinn for many of them) and videos of the expedition: