How to Keep Endangered Sea Turtles off the Dinner Menu

Costa Rican poachers are stealing thousands of turtle eggs and selling them to restaurants.
Sep 12, 2014·
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

After 55 years of conservation efforts, Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica may be one of the safest places in the world for sea turtles. Even there, the endangered animals still face constant threats. Three weeks ago David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, was at the organization’s research station in Tortuguero preparing for a night of studying the massive reptiles when he received unexpected visitors: “Several local police guys pulled up on their ATV,” he said. “They had just apprehended a poacher with a sack of turtle eggs.” The sack represented at least two complete sea turtle nests.

The eggs were still quite fresh and hadn’t been mishandled, so Godfrey and his team quickly created two artificial nests and reburied them. Godfrey thinks it’s likely that the eggs will hatch in the next few weeks. “They’re still quite viable if you get them back in the ground fast enough,” he said.

(Elsewhere in Costa Rica, a team of conservationists is aiming to apprehend turtle egg poachers. That story appears on the latest episode of The Operatives, a new television series that airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Pivot TV, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company. A preview is above.)

Most stolen turtle eggs aren’t so lucky. Throughout Costa Rica, other Latin American countries, and the Caribbean, sea turtle eggs are routinely dug up and sold to bars, restaurants, and cantinas. As part of a long night of drinking, the eggs are cracked into shot glasses, doused in spicy sangrita sauce, and eaten raw. Many people consume the eggs because it is a part of their culture. Some do it because they need the protein. Others mistakenly believe it will increase their virility. Legend has it that women who eat the eggs will have male babies.

“It’s pervasive,” Godfrey said.

Centuries of turtle egg poaching and consumption have taken a heavy toll on the four species that visit Costa Rica. “We started in Tortuguero in the late ’50s,” Godfrey said. By that time the populations that once nested there had all but disappeared.

Protections over the next few years helped put more turtle hatchlings in the water, but it took decades for the tiny turtles to grow large enough to start nesting themselves. “We didn’t start to see new adults nest on that beach until the 1970s.” Godfrey said. Today, he reports, there has been about a 600 percent increase in sea turtle nesting at Tortuguero.

Other beaches, however, are still a poaching free-for-all. “On any beach that doesn’t have anyone protecting it, egg poaching is 100 percent,” said Randall Arauz, president of the Costa Rica–based conservation organization Pretoma.

He calculates that roughly half of Costa Rica’s beaches are protected in some way, although only a few employ police or park rangers. Instead, most of the work is done by members of local communities who see value in living sea turtles and the ecotourism dollars the animals attract.

Godfrey and Arauz report that more locals have begun to see the benefits of their oceanic visitors. “They understand that these resources have been dwindling,” Godfrey said. “The turtles nesting are as much or more a part of the culture than eating the egg. They see that there’s a sustainable economy that can be built on sea turtle tourism and the conservation of these species.”

The opportunities have also turned some of the sea turtles’ former enemies into friends.

“Our strategy,” said Arauz, “has always been to work with local community members who are poachers and convert them to do decent work, something that’s legal, something they can be proud of. These young men used to be poachers, but now they’re in charge of their beach.”

Arauz said that turning the tides on the poaching crisis requires perseverance. “You can’t go into one of these beach communities and give a turtle talk and expect everyone to change in one year,” he said. “This has been a 15-year process.”

It has worked. On beaches that were once completely emptied of eggs, poaching is now less than 10 percent. “The poaching there has declined to a level that’s acceptable,” Arauz said.

Sea turtle conservation poses greater challenges in other countries. Nearby Nicaragua and Honduras have little ecotourism, along with much greater levels of poverty and hunger. With no ecotourism funding and no other economic alternatives, poaching continues unabated. “You can’t convince locals who are hungry,” Arauz said.

People moving to Costa Rica from Nicaragua or other countries pose a new problem for conservationists. “We’ve been doing public education for 50 years, but every year more and more people come from outside who haven’t gotten the message,” said Godfrey, who noted that the arrivals immediately start poaching, as they did in their home countries.

All of the ongoing conservation and protection programs rely on ecotourism dollars not just for funding but also as a way to convince locals that saving the turtles is worthwhile. Arauz encourages anyone going to Costa Rica to visit a nesting project or pay for a sea turtle tour. “We need these projects to be sustainable for the locals, and we need conservation to actually help the economies of these communities,” he said. “If they need income, they’ll go back to taking the eggs.”