Environmentalists Attacked for Protecting One of the Ocean’s Most Endangered Animals

Poachers threaten a group guarding sea turtle eggs in Costa Rica.
Turtles crawl toward the sea after laying eggs on a beach in Costa Rica. (Photo: Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)
Jul 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

There’s trouble in eco-paradise.

Costa Rica, long hailed as a resolute steward of the environment, is failing to protect endangered sea turtles and their eggs along the nation’s Caribbean coast, leaving most of that work to volunteers who have faced violent and even deadly attacks by poachers, environmentalists contend.

The latest incident happened in the early morning hours last Friday, when the 11 multinational volunteers from Operation Jairo, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Sea Turtle Defense Campaign, were assaulted by at least 10 stick- and machete-wielding poachers, according to the environmental group. The volunteers were patrolling Pacuare Beach, a favored site of nesting turtles.

Two volunteers sustained minor injuries. Brett Bradley of Australia, the Operation Jairo ground leader, stood between the assailants and the volunteers and was hit repeatedly on his arms with sticks while media crew member Ellen Campbell of Canada sustained an injury to her shoulder, Sea Shepherd said in a statement.

The attack was vicious and frightening but not unexpected, said Jorge Serendero, Sea Shepherd spokesperson for Central America. “The poachers had already threatened all the volunteers, especially Brett Bradley,” he said.

That’s because on June 4, the team had encountered a poacher snatching eggs from an endangered leatherback sea turtle. They intervened and surrounded the turtle, protecting her until she finished nesting and returned to the ocean. The remaining eggs were transferred to a guarded hatchery.

It infuriated the poachers.

A few days before the attack, a man approached the volunteers on the beach. “He was shouting and screaming and saying, ‘We’re going to kill you,’ ” Serendero said.

Sea Shepherd reported the threat to local police and doubled the number of armed guards—from two to four—hired to protect the volunteers. During the attack, one of the guards fired several shots into the sand, causing the assailants to flee.

Costa Rican law enforcement officials did not respond to an email seeking confirmation of the incident.

So, Why Should You Care? Leatherback sea turtle populations have plunged dramatically in recent decades, with only an estimated 34,000 females remaining worldwide, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Egg poaching is one of the biggest threats to the species’ survival, scientists say.

Attacks on environmental activists are not new in Costa Rica. In May 2013, turtle poachers tortured and killed Jairo Mora Sandoval, a 26-year-old Costa Rican working with a nonprofit group called the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, or WIDECAST. Seven men charged with the murder were acquitted last January. Operation Jairo was named in Mora Sandoval’s honor.

RELATED: Scientists Crack a Mystery Surrounding Endangered Sea Turtles

For decades, the isolated beaches of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast have been a prime target for hueveros, or “egg men,” petty criminals who sell turtle eggs, thought to be an aphrodisiac, for about a dollar each.

Costa Rica touts itself as a leading destination for eco-tourism. So why isn’t the government doing more to protect sea turtles and their eggs—and the people who are trying to save them?

“Costa Rica began a big effort to make this a green country about 18 years ago, with a very good marketing effort, but the reality is not the same,” Serendero said. “We need actions and not just the promises of politicians. We can’t say that nothing has been done, but much, much more is needed.”

Government agents prowl parts of the Pacific coast in search of turtle poachers, but Serendero said he had not encountered them on the country’s Caribbean coast.

Phone calls to the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Seas seeking comment were not returned.

Karen Eckert, executive director of WIDECAST and a research scientist at Duke University, said that Costa Rica is not fully living up to its eco-friendly reputation but noted that the country is hardly alone in failing to protect its wildlife.

“All governments fall short when it comes to enforcing wildlife laws and keeping safe the people that put their lives on the line every day to defend endangered species,” Eckert said in an email. “This is not to say that governments don’t care about nature—or the people that defend it—but too often a government’s fiscal and operational priorities are elsewhere.”

“Could Costa Rica do a better job?” Eckert said. “You bet. So could every other government on the planet.”