An Unlikely Solution: Saving Sea Turtles by Eating Their Eggs

One Costa Rican community’s unusual answer to conservation.
A local harvests sea turtle eggs in Costa Rica’s Ostional National Park. (Photo: Olivier Blaise/Getty)
Aug 12, 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.

It is one of nature’s great spectacles. On certain nights of the year, huge numbers of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) mass in the Pacific Ocean just off the beach at Ostional, Costa Rica. Next, tens of thousands of females come clambering ashore over two or three nights to lay their eggs in the sand. These mass nesting events, called arribadas, may occur a half-dozen times over the course of a year on the beach of the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge. And each time, for the first two days, local villagers come out to harvest and sell as many eggs as they can lay their hands on. And it is entirely legal.

The harvest may seem particularly shocking given that Costa Rica has carefully cultivated a reputation as a green destination. On the opposite coast, moreover, a conservationist was murdered earlier this year while trying to prevent poachers from raiding the nests of another sea turtle species. (Police recently arrested suspects, said to be known turtle egg poachers, in that killing.)

But Ostional is different, and for its many supporters, it constitutes an important success for community-based conservation, which is the controversial idea that you can protect a natural resource by engaging the local population to manage and profit from it. Proponents of community-based conservation regularly do battle—one scientist calls it “a dialog of the deaf”—with old-school proponents of fencing in wildlife and fencing out locals. And the fencing crowd likes to point out that community-based programs have frequently failed.

But the Ostional egg harvesting project has been operating for more 25 years now, and the turtles seem to be thriving. It started in the early 1980s, when local villagers realized that egg harvesting by their own community and neighboring villages was out of control. Wiping out the astonishing abundance of sea turtles was a real possibility. At least two large arribada rookeries (or breeding colonies) for olive ridley turtles in Mexico have vanished because of overexploitation.

With government and scientific help, Ostional, a community of about 450 people, developed an alternative. The key to the harvest is that many of the eggs laid early in the arribada end up being destroyed by subsequent waves of turtles scrambling to lay their eggs in the same place. Those broken eggs rot, and the microbial soup of decomposition may also reduce the hatching rate for later eggs. In theory, at least, removing the first two days of eggs could even increase the number of turtles produced at Ostional.

The harvest is now managed by a local development administration, ADIO, and the national Ministry of Environment and Energy. To reduce the value of black-market turtle eggs, the price of the legally harvested eggs is linked to the price of chicken eggs. And to keep outsiders from moving in to take advantage of the harvest, the rules also limit the trade to Ostional natives or those who have lived in the community for at least five years.

The egg harvest has become the primary source of income for 70 percent of local households, according to Duke University researcher Lisa M. Campbell. Jobs in tourism and construction have also opened up. To keep that level of success going, ADIO now regularly invests in protecting the beach, with full-time uniformed guards watching from towers and patrolling on foot during the arribadas. It’s also set up a cooperative to provide trained guides to tourists. Campbell describes the result for both the villagers and the turtles as an example of how community-based conservation can succeed, given the right circumstances and a willingness to work through the inevitable issues.

But the issues also don’t just get resolved and go away. Any such project is a continuing work in progress. When a team of biologists took a closer look at Ostional for a 2012 paper in the journal Chelonian Conservation and Biology, they pointed out that the egg harvesting project hasn’t done adequate scientific monitoring of the population size or the hatching rate over time. Without that, they warned, current harvesting practices “may threaten the long-term survival of the Ostional assemblage.”

Headaches like that can make fences—both literal and legal—seem like the easier answer, and Costa Rica generally is moving toward a more prohibitive stance on egg harvesting. But now and then someone also needs to say a good word for carefully managed harvesting, for fishing, and even for hunting. We already live in a paved-over world where people are married to their computer screens and utterly divorced from nature. The enduring appeal of community projects like the one at Ostional is that they allow at least some of us to stay engaged with the nitty-gritty of the real-life animal world.