Justice Sought for Murder of Young Sea Turtle Conservationist in Costa Rica

The death of Jairo Mora Sandoval signals a new level of threat to endangered species and the people who protect them.

Jairo Mora Sandoval on the job protecting nesting sea turtles.

Photo via: action.seaturtles.org
Jun 3, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Protecting wildlife can be dangerous work. As many as 1,000 wildlife rangers and conservationists around the world have been murdered over the past decade by poachers, illegal loggers, ranchers, drug dealers, and militias, according to one estimate. Still, Costa Rica, long regarded as one of the greenest and happiest countries on Earth, is just about the last place you would expect it to happen.

But late last Thursday night, a young Costa Rican conservationist, together with three women from the United States and a fourth from Spain, found out otherwise. The group was driving back from patrolling a beach where endangered leatherback sea turtles make their nests in the sand. A downed palm tree blocked their way on a remote stretch of road, and when 26-year-old Jairo Mora Sandoval got out of his Suzuki 4x4 to move it, five masked men with guns suddenly appeared. The kidnappers took the group to an abandoned house, where they tied up the women and stole their cellphones and money. Then two of the kidnappers drove off with Mora in the Suzuki.

Playa Moín, where the incident took place, is a quiet beach, about 11 miles long in the Caribbean port city of Limon. Last year more than 1,000 leatherbacks nested there, said Cristina Volkart, a vice president at Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), for whom Mora was working. Trade in turtle eggs has been illegal in Costa Rica since 1966. But with 80 to 100 eggs apiece, she said, each nest was worth about $80 to poachers, who are often also drug users or dealers.

Conservationists routinely hide nests or shift them to fenced-in nurseries to protect them from predators and poachers alike. But last year, poachers armed with AK-47s and nine millimeter handguns attacked one such nursery at the same beach, gagging foreign volunteers and seizing more than 1,500 eggs. It was a symptom of increased drug trafficking, or what Roderic Mast, vice president of the Oceanic Society, describes as the “Colombia-nization” of Central America. As the country’s main East Coast port, Limon has been especially vulnerable.

This year, Mora had been warning for weeks about tense encounters with poachers. In April, he posted a notice on Facebook that poachers had raided 60 nests and he urged police “to come armed ... we need help and fast.” Environmentalists were being threatened “by a mafia that was looting the nests for eggs,” he told the country’s leading newspaper, La Nación. When a reporter from that paper came along on patrol early in May, Mora said police had ignored the problem. Asked if he was frightened, he said, “Yes, it's scary, the worst could happen at any time.”

Volkart said conservationists have routinely been threatened by poachers, but “never, ever in Costa Rica’s history has someone crossed that line.” But early last Friday morning, it happened. The kidnappers guarding the four volunteers eventually left, and the women escaped unharmed to notify the police. Mora’s body turned up at dawn, on the beach he had worked to protect. His hands were tied behind his back and he had been beaten, dragged behind the Suzuki, and then shot in the head. “It was really cruel,” said Volkart. She called it “a cold-blooded plan just to get [Mora].” She said the victim had never been involved with drugs or alcohol. Instead, he grew up with marine turtle conservation efforts in his native Limon, “and he has always been this passionate young guy working to rescue leatherbacks.”

The case has produced “shock and indignation” in Costa Rica, she said. President Laura Chinchilla called it a “despicable murder” and called on police and the courts to bring the killers to justice. A coalition of turtle conservancy groups has raised a $10,000 as a reward for information about the perpetrators. Meanwhile, WIDECAST has suspended its patrols at Playa Moín, though one staff member conceded that, “this is probably the exact result that the killers were hoping for.”