The Illegal Poaching of Turtle Eggs… for food

How culture impacts the implementation of law

The coasts of Costa Rica become one of great interest during arribadas (a Spanish word meaning “arrival”), pre-historic creatures begin emerging out of the ocean by the 100’s to lay their eggs. These animals are turtles, the sight is a rare spectacle as they only ever venture onto land to lay eggs.

There are 7 turtle species in total worldwide, and 4 of these can be spotted along the Costa Rica coastline: The leatherback (the largest species of turtle), the hawksbill, the Olive Ridley (which are found in the hundreds during arribadas) and the green sea turtle. All 7 species are at risk of illegal trade and poaching, with the 4 found at Costa Rica being threatened with extinction. And extinction is not only caused by poaching, entanglement in fishing nets is also a great threat to turtles. Nonetheless, poaching for their eggs and meat is their number 1 threat; causing rapid declines in turtle numbers throughout the world.

Olive Ridleys are the most abundant sea turtle. However, they have been given a threatened status of ‘vulnerable’ due to a massive 30% decline in numbers globally as their nesting sites have been reduced by human population growth. This status is given by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, although this organisation provides detailed information on species globally, they cannot enforce regulations, and the countries that take part in the organisation do so voluntary. Therefore, those that disagree or wish to keep certain traditions (e.g. turtle egg consumption), can opt out of any participation.

Turtles are, and have been for many years, a part of many cultures globally. China for example believe that turtle meat and bones will promote longevity and having a stuffed turtle in one’s home is seen as a status symbol. However, the locations in which the species were once found in China, are now so depleted that the poachers are moving further afield to areas around the Philippines.

Turtle poaching is also a tradition in India and despite strict laws on the activity, poaching has increased as reported by Mohit Rao, a journalist for The Hindu newspaper. Mohit also reports that the turtles are “easily smuggled” and the majority of those that have been seized were destined for South East Asian countries. The largest Olive Ridley nesting site is found in the coast of Odisha, India with the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica following closely. Taking a closer look at Costa Rica can help us to better understand the culture behind poaching.

Eggs and poverty in Costa Rica

Not only are the coasts of Costa Rica a magnificent site for conservationists and animal lovers alike during the summer months, they are also a source of great profit for many of the locals in the surrounding areas. According to the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), over 20% (around 1 million people) of Costa Ricans are living in poverty with 6.3% (95,000 people) living in extreme poverty. Turtle eggs can be sold at $1-$2 each and make for a quick earning as each nest contains at least 100 eggs.

Since demand is high, the eggs can be found for sale openly in markets, restaurants and bars. Economic poverty and limited opportunities, combined with a culture of high demand for the eggs, makes poaching and selling the eggs tempting, despite the sale of turtle eggs being illegal. Sale of turtle eggs was outlawed in 1996; however, according to Beth Adubato, a New York Institute of Technology criminologist, egg poaching in Costa Rica has actually risen by 30% since the law was put into place.

Many of the locals are not aware as to why the eggs are illegal; one local interviewed about the legal status of turtle eggs on a National Geographic documentary mentioned that:

“they are bad for you, they are high in cholesterol, this must be why they are illegal”.

This demonstrates the need for conservation education in the area so that more locals understand the detrimental effects that eating these eggs can have on the survival of the species. However, such education will not be easy. The consumption of turtle eggs are a huge part of Costa Rican culture, they are considered to be ‘a way of life’ and they are a traditional delicacy. The eggs are supposedly an aphrodisiac and are used in drinks in bars and brothels. However, there is of course no evidence to back up their aphrodisiac properties.

Finders keepers

There is however, some hope. Many local conservationists voluntarily give up their time to protect the species from poachers and there is now a ‘finders keepers’ rule, this rule maintains the peace along the shore lines. The battle still continues nonetheless and poachers remain a strong threat to the turtles, but with work of the conservationists, there is a much greater chance that many will survive.

The conservationists, along with law enforcement head out on patrol during nesting seasons. This enables them to monitor and protect the endangered turtles from poachers. However, poachers are also patrolling the beaches. Whoever finds the eggs first, keeps them. Conservationists collect the eggs and place them into new nests which are protected. Statistically though, only 1 in 1000 eggs will actually reach maturity, therefore populations are unlikely to rebound quickly.

In 2013, Jairo Mora Sandoval, a conservationist working to protect the leatherback sea turtles at Moín Beach, Costa Rica, was brutally murdered. Investigators believe that the main reason behind the killing was due to the work the conservationist had achieved with putting a stop to the illegal poaching. This, consequently, impacted the tourism industry a great deal and pushed Costa Rica into further poverty, as tourism is the country’s main industry.

Following the attack on Jairo Mora Sandoval, additional police patrols were enforced. This was more for the safety of the public, rather than the protection of the turtles according to Vice News. Brad Nahill, reporting for National Geographic, reports that “Poachers are caught red-handed and go without prosecution”. Vice News also found the same to be true and adds that areas within Central and South America are the most dangerous areas for conservationists and those that commit murder of conservationists are again very rarely punished. A more recent article by The Guardian shares the news that the criminals involved with Jairo Mora Sandoval’s murder have now been sentenced to decades in prison.

Methods to tackle turtle egg poaching

Recently, some intelligent initiatives have been developed to help increase the survival chances of these animals. The first initiative being the very controversial legal harvesting of eggs. Not only does this provide the locals with their traditional delicacy, it provides jobs and this therefore provides locals in the area with an incentive to protect the eggs and the hatchlings. Furthermore, according to The Costa Rica Guide, the illegal black market trade of illegal turtle eggs in Playa Ostional has significantly decreased. However, conservationists, such as Earthrace Conservation, argue that whilst these magnificent creatures are faced with extinction, the harvesting of 100,000 or so eggs cannot be improving their situation. Earthrace Conservation also adds that it “is a shame to see how much effort goes into saving 100 eggs on one beach, when 30 minutes away, others are harvesting 100,000 eggs in one day”.

The second approach is one like no other. Conservationist Kim Williams-Guillen has been working on a project which has won her $10,000 US. Willams-Guillen’s approach involves the creation of fake turtle eggs containing GPS technology. The idea is in development and is set to revolutionise the way in which poachers are captured. The method will not only guide law enforcement officers to the poacher, it may also provide leads to those higher up the chain. Kim Williams-Guillen mentions that “although many poachers are locals with limited resources, during these arribadas there are influxes of gangs of poachers from larger cities outside local communities.” Indicating that the problem is a lot bigger then what is found in today’s media.

The production of the eggs has been noted as ‘easy’ as they look like ping pong balls. However, the texture is yet to be perfected, the egg must be rubbery and flexible to be realistic. Even if the egg is slightly different it would be very hard for a poacher to tell the difference as only one fake egg is needed in the hundred or so eggs found in a nest. When the eggs are covered in sand it will be very hard to tell the difference.

Which way is the correct way?

Even though the harvesting of eggs is criticised, it may be a viable method to employ worldwide, especially as beaches become over crowded with Olive Ridleys during Arribada. This then leads to nests being dug up by other laying females as there is not sufficient amount of space to make more nests. However, it also promotes the consumption of an endangered species which will potentially keep society demanding more without considering the possible consequences. It has also been brought to light that the illegal poaching and trade of turtle eggs is a dangerous one and therefore, the culprits must be caught and brought to justice to ensure the safety of conservationists. GPS tracking, in theory, may help to curb the poaching of eggs and once the tracking has been put into place and works, more and more poachers may think twice before taking part.

Overall, the answer — as with the majority of conservation issues, is education. More emphasis must be based around education to enable those committing the acts to empathise with the issue at hand. Another important aspect in regards to turtle poaching is law enforcement as harsher law enforcement changes the behaviour of the criminal. A reduction in turtle egg poaching can be achieved if positive incentives are put into place and offered to poachers to ensure that those that poach as a means to provide for their families have an alternative.

An important approach to take is one of understanding. This is how these communities have lived for many years and therefore a judgmental approach would more than likely force those committing the crimes to continue the road they are taking. However, offering alternatives and an understanding would more likely open their eyes to better opportunities.

If you want to help conserve these majestic and pre-historic creatures, then you can do so by donating to one of the many turtle conservation projects in the Costa Rica area such as Sea Turtle Conservation.

You can also share this information! Nothing helps more by sharing the knowledge that you now acquire to help raise awareness.