During 2019, an el Niño year, the leatherback turtle nesting season is expected to have higher numbers of turtles nesting on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. “The warmer sea and weather will make this a peak nesting season”, says Nicki Wheeler, Volunteer Coordinator at Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST). And more turtles means that more poachers will also be searching for precious eggs on the beaches. The soft-shelled eggs fetch a high price on the black market, and conservationists who protect the Vulnerable leatherback turtle population do so, amongst other things, by patrolling nesting beaches to protect nesting turtles and their eggs.
Turtles nest during the cover of darkness and by the end of each night, all the eggs are gone from the beaches, either taken by poachers or saved by citizen scientists and re-buried in the safe sand of a guarded hatchery.
“Each egg is sold for one US dollar on the black market, and with each nest holding 60-120 eggs, that is a lot of money” explains Fabian Carrasco from Mexico, the onsite scientist with LAST at their Pacuare beach site on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
Biosphere Expeditions works together with LAST, and for the fourth year in a row, an international team of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists have been actively patrolling Pacuare beach and guarding the hatchery. The hatchery held over 10,000 eggs, which amounts to over 10,000 US dollars on the black market. Trade on international markets could even bring hundreds of dollars per egg in Asia. Given the amount of money at stake, every egg on Pacuare beach would be poached, were it not for the efforts of LAST and Biosphere Expeditions.
Turtle eggs are valued as a (fake) aphrodisiac and as a traditional cultural food in many countries in Latin America. Leatherback eggs are more popular than other sea turtle eggs, because they are the largest of all: close to the size of a pool ball. However, the eggs are high in cholesterol and can harm the health of frequent consumers.
“In a new and positive development, and due to our efforts and reports, the coast guard has started to visit the beach more often,” says Carrasco. “For example, at one point during the 2019 nesting season, ten coast guard members came and arrested two poachers. At another time they arrested one poacher and retrieved four bags of eggs from him. We re-buried the eggs in the hatchery, just in case they are able to hatch.” The coast guard also started using new thermal imaging to find poachers and turtles. “All this sends a clear message to other poachers that they are no longer able to poach at will and face the combined efforts of the law, LAST and Biosphere Expeditions”, concludes Carrasco, “it is one of the many positive outcomes from our conservation work here.”
Lucy Marcus, the project’s expedition leader adds: “This is great news as our recent annual reports have made it clear that increased law enforcement on the beach would be a very positive step forward in turtle conservation. It seems our voice is being heard!”
Marcus continues: “All in all our expedition saved 25 clutches of leatherback turtle eggs, totaling close to 2,500 eggs. We patrolled the beachers for a total of 84 hours and were on shifts in the hatcher for 42 hours. During our time here, only nine nests were poached, meaning that our success rate was 65%. Without the presence of our local partner LAST and our active conservation action of beach patrols and hatchery duty, most likely 100% of the nests would be poached or otherwise lost. I think these figures speak for themselves in terms of the important role that citizen science plays in protecting the wildlife of our beautiful, beleagured planet.”
The citizen scientists searching for turtles on the beaches are richly rewarded as well: “The chance to see the leatherback turtles and to get up close and watch them lay their eggs was a once in a lifetime experience I will always treasure”, said Cynthia Singer, a Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientist from the USA.
The full scientific report of the expedition is due to be published later in 2020. See www.biosphere-expeditions.org/reports for details.
Here are some pictures of the 2019 expedition: