Sea Turtle Egg Poaching Under the Spotlight in Costa Rica


Jairo Mora proved just how deadly poaching turtle eggs in the province of Limón along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast has become—Marcel Evans reports in this article for Costa Rica News.

“They arm drug addicts with machetes and knives, sometimes even with makeshift or low-caliber weapons, so they can steal the eggs,” Mora told the Costa Rican daily La Nación, adding narco-traffickers pay the thieves with drugs to fuel their addictions.

Twenty-five days later on May 31, Mora, 26, was found dead – the back of his head bludgeoned by a stick or rock – on Moín beach, where he had spent years protecting turtles, according to Francisco Segura, director of the Judicial Investigation Organization (OIJ).

“When he fell, he swallowed sand, and more than likely, the blow and the sand caused him to asphyxiate,” Segura said. Nobody has been arrested in connection with Mora’s murder.

Mora and four female foreign environmentalists were keeping an eye on Moín beach on the night of May 30 when they were attacked by four or five men. The women were bound and taken to an abandoned house, where they escaped before alerting authorities, according to police reports.

But Mora wasn’t as fortunate.

“In the past three years … we have received [anonymous threats] that drug traffickers and criminals in the area wanted us to leave,” said Didiher Chacón, a representative of the environmentalist organization Widecast, where Mora worked as the researcher in charge of turtle conservation at Moín beach.

Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is an area commonly used by narco-traffickers for unloading drugs or refueling, so they often solicit help from locals, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

“Since the beach is very big, [criminals] set up camps and spend the whole weekend removing the eggs,” Limón Deputy Police Chief Erick Calderón said.

The sale of eggs or turtle meat is illegal in Costa Rica and punishable by a sentence of between three months and two years in prison under Article 6 of the Protection, Conservation and Recovery of Sea Turtle Populations’ law.

Still, poachers, including drug addicts, see the stealing of turtle eggs as easy money, as about US$1,000 can be made by selling the eggs from 10 to 13 nests to customers, restaurants and bars. The eggs are used in exotic dishes in the Central American nation, according to Chacón.

“The turtle eggs are removed from the beaches of the Caribbean, and many people exchange them for marijuana, crack and cocaine,” Chacón added. “These eggs then are sold in the cities of [Limón and San José] and the money goes to the drug trafficker. This is what Jairo denounced.”

Widecast counted nearly 1,500 turtle nests last year, with a market value of about US$120,000, making poaching a very attractive business for traffickers, according to Chacón.

“The effort in nest plundering is almost zero and generates quick income,” said Ana Lorena Guevara, vice minister of Costa Rica’s Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE). “Though it is associated with a social problem, it is also an easy way [to get money].”

Since authorities don’t have the manpower to monitor every restaurant, they focus on public awareness campaigns to shed light on the crime.

“Even with the campaigns carried out to raise awareness that people should not consume these products, it is very difficult to stop the sale since there are so many people who buy them,” Guevara said.

Authorities have increased patrols on the beaches and rivers in the Caribbean to combat the crime, according to the National Coast Guard Service (SNG).

A total of 657 turtle eggs were seized by authorities and returned to beaches during 20 ground surveillance operations, 92 river operations and 11 sea operations between January and May.

“Between four and six officers do daily patrols in Limón,” Calderón said. “We have reduced the theft of turtle eggs to almost zero, therefore reducing seizures as well.”

In April, the Environmental Unit of the SNG trained 55 police officers to patrol the Matina and Limón beaches between May and October, when sea turtles spawn.

“In my 30 years working in conservation, we have not taken any preventive actions, but rather, corrective actions,” Chacón said. “Now, the state has given this crime attention and has the intention to change this.”

On June 20, government representatives met with environmental NGOs and agreed to allocate $20 million colones (US$40,000) in additional funding from the state to invest in a program for the conservation of sea turtles at Gandoca-Manzanillo, where Mora was born, according to MINAE.

“His death will not go unpunished – his sacrifice will not be in vain,” Rep. José María Villalta said after the Legislative Assembly’s named an Environmental Affairs Committee to investigate Mora’s death. “Those anonymous justice fighters, like Jairo, who risk their lives daily to defend our Mother Earth, can be sure of this.”

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