A radical new way of pro­tect­ing tur­tles in Costa Rica

Of the mil­lions of eggs laid by the en­dan­gered olive ri­d­ley sea tur­tles on one Costa Ri­can beach, few sur­vive both preda­tors and poach­ers. But how could al­low­ing lo­cal vil­lagers to har­vest the eggs be a so­lu­tion? Gaia Vince re­ports

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Dawn on Costa Rica’s Pa­cific coast and the dark fig­ure of a man at the wa­ter’s edge grad­u­ally be­comes dis­tinct un­der a pinken­ing sky. I switch off my torch. Jairo Quiros Rosales and I are the only peo­ple to be seen on this broad black beach, the vol­canic sands of which stretch north for sev­eral miles. Jairo is beck­on­ing, so I hurry down to him, scan­ning the beach and murky shore­line. As the light grows, I make out the fu­ne­real vul­tures fleck­ing the dis­tance, and as­sorted mutts ap­pear from the gloom to sniff the night from the sands.

And then I see them: about 100 me­tres fur­ther up the beach, like strange, reg­u­larly humped stones, hun­dreds of olive ri­d­ley sea tur­tles are mak­ing their way from the ocean on to the beach to lay their eggs. This is the ar­rib­ada . It means “the ar­rival” in Span­ish, and I have been wait­ing more than a month to see it.

Most marine tur­tles nest in­di­vid­u­ally at var­i­ous times dur­ing the year so that their young hatch at un­pre­dictable times and places to avoid preda­tors. But olive ri­d­ley tur­tles evolved a mass-nest­ing strat­egy. By syn­chro­nis­ing their egg-lay­ing, so many hatch­lings are pro­duced that the preda­tors can­not con­sume them all and are over­whelmed. It’s known as “preda­tor swamp­ing”. The mass emer­gence of olive ri­d­ley tur­tles hap­pens a few times a year in just a few places around the world, and Os­tional beach in Costa Rica is one of them.

As we walk along the shore, tur­tles stream out of the sea like tanks in­vad­ing the beach – a ma­ter­nal ar­mada of an­cient rep­tiles driven for­ward by hor­monal com­pul­sion to de­posit their pre­cious cargo. Jairo points out to sea where a line of cara­paces bob par­al­lel to the shore­line, lit­tle heads pok­ing up pe­ri­od­i­cally to breathe, wait­ing their turn. Ahead of us the beach be­gins to un­du­late with heart-shaped olive shells as the tur­tles crawl over and past each other in their ur­gency. There are per­haps tens of thou­sands now crowd­ing the beach. Some, hav­ing done their busi­ness, are on their way back to the ocean, heav­ing their heavy shells against the on­com­ing tide of preg­nant com­rades on flip­pers poorly suited to ter­res­trial marches. Spent, they wait at the shore for in­com­ing waves to sweep them out to sea.

I’m ab­sorbed in the won­der of it all. I’ve seen marine tur­tles close up, though rarely, while div­ing, where they move ef­fort­lessly and with sur­pris­ing grace. It is un­usual to see large wild an­i­mals up close, and to be sur­rounded by so many is al­most in­cred­i­ble.

Olive ri­d­ley tur­tles, like all marine tur­tles, are threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion be­cause of us. The nat­u­ral world is reel­ing from our global im­pact, and for tur­tles, like so many other species, it’s only get­ting worse. Should we care? What does it re­ally mat­ter if we lose a bunch of an­i­mals we hardly even see? Hu­man­ity’s re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral world is a com­pli­cated one – to un­der­stand our cur­rent ex­tinc­tion pat­tern, we need to look at the way our hu­man lives and liveli­hoods, as well as our de­sires and mo­ti­va­tions, are en­meshed within the com­plex global en­vi­ron­ment.

The story of the ar­rib­ada of­fers an in­sight into a planet-wide prob­lem that is far big­ger than any in­di­vid­ual play­ers. The de­tails are, of course, dif­fer­ent for each an­i­mal or plant

On the beach a horn sounds and egg col­lec­tion can be­gin Her shell heaves with ob­vi­ous ef­fort and her eyes stare blankly as she en­ters a trance-like state

strug­gling to sur­vive on a hu­man­dom­i­nated planet, but the hu­man emo­tions and driv­ers are uni­ver­sal. What makes Os­tional beach so ex­tra­or­di­nary is that res­i­dents have found a way to make use of their nat­u­ral re­source but also to pro­tect it. And that is the key: we can­not pro­tect the world’s wildlife un­less we also pro­tect the needs of the hu­mans that rely on it.

As we walk along the beach, Jairo is count­ing the tur­tles, es­ti­mat­ing num­bers be­tween reg­u­larly placed ranger posts by not­ing shells and the cu­ri­ous tank tracks they leave in the sand on their com­mute up and back. Later, re­searchers will make a more ac­cu­rate count, he says, but on first reck­on­ing, there are more than 10,000 tur­tles so far in the ar­rib­ada. Some of them will be tagged and mea­sured and logged on an in­ter­na­tional data­base so that their move­ments can be tracked. First, he wants to show me some­thing.

“Venga [Come on]!” he urges, and leads me up the beach to where the damp flat­ness eases to soft dry dunes. Here, above the tide­line, is where the tur­tles nest. A new ar­rival has made her way up here and is be­gin­ning to dig at her cho­sen spot. Jairo and I squat down to watch. With her front flip­pers she spades the sand, flick­ing it left and right, fre­quently cov­er­ing my feet. In just a few min­utes the hole is ready for her to gen­tly re­verse into, low­er­ing her­self tail first.

When the hole is fi­nally to her sat­is­fac­tion, she read­ies her­self for egg-lay­ing. Here, her labours be­gin. Her shell heaves with ob­vi­ous ef­fort and her eyes stare un­re­spon­sively as she en­ters a trance-like state. Be­neath her, in the care­fully pre­pared nest that she has judged to be of the right tem­per­a­ture, depth and dis­tance from the ocean, one by one she is de­posit­ing her eggs – her evo­lu­tion­ary rai­son d’être, the ge­netic ma­te­rial that links her to her mother, grand­mother, all the way back to the Cre­ta­ceous and, in some fun­da­men­tal way, to her con­tem­po­rary dis­tant cousin: me. Her breath­ing comes strongly and mois­ture gath­ers in her nos­trils. Across the di­vide of an­i­mal class, from mam­mal to rep­tile, I feel great em­pa­thy for this mother. Around us, in this vast ma­ter­nity ward, other moth­ers are flick­ing sand or lay­ing eggs. And be­tween them stalk the vul­tures and dogs, bid­ing their time, wait­ing to dig up the newly laid eggs.

Each tur­tle lays around 100 eggs, but of more than 10m eggs laid in an ar­rib­ada, only around 0.2% typ­i­cally sur­vive to hatch. And of the hatch­lings, just 1% are thought to make it to adult­hood. Part of the prob­lem is the ar­rib­ada it­self, which lasts for around five nights. So many tur­tles lay­ing on a com­par­a­tively small stretch of beach means that tur­tles ar­riv­ing on sub­se­quent nights dig up and dam­age the pre­vi­ous night’s eggs, caus­ing bac­te­rial in­fec­tions to de­stroy both sets of eggs. And, be­cause the in­cu­ba­tion pe­riod is at least 45 days, while ar­rib­adas usu­ally oc­cur at monthly in­ter­vals, a nest­ing tur­tle may dig up and ruin eggs from a pre­vi­ous

ar­rib­ada too. Vul­tures are al­ready feast­ing on the torn re­mains of scat­tered eggs. They can­not dig them up from the nests, but dogs can, and wher­ever there are hu­mans, we bring dogs. The dogs here are a men­ace to the ar­riv­ing tur­tles as well as to their eggs and hatch­lings. Jairo shoos them away but they re­turn quickly.

He asks me if I want to see fur­ther, and I nod. Care­fully, he brushes a bridge of sand away from the tail of our labour­ing tur­tle and I peek through. Down in her nest is a clutch of white eggs the size of ping-pong balls. From be­hind her tail, her fleshy ovipos­i­tor hangs down and while I watch, mes­merised, it re­leases an­other pre­cious ball, fol­lowed by a squirt of clear vis­cous pro­tec­tive fluid to coat the per­me­able eggs. We watch a few more eggs drop down and then Jairo re­places the sand seal and we sit back.

Tur­tles are exquisitely adapted to their en­vi­ron­ment – they have sur­vived al­most un­changed since the Tri­as­sic – and they can live for more than a cen­tury in the wild, re­pro­duc­ing well into old age. But, in the An­thro­pocene, this age dom­i­nated by hu­mans, they face per­haps their tough­est chal­lenge for more than a mil­lion years – beaches where they nest have been dis­turbed by de­vel­op­ment and the sheer num­bers of peo­ple and dogs. Ar­ti­fi­cial light causes prob­lems, con­fus­ing tur­tles and hatch­lings, which rely on moon­light to nav­i­gate. They can be killed or in­jured by boat im­pacts or en­tan­gled in fish­ing nets, and many are dy­ing from in­gest­ing plas­tic and other pol­lu­tants. Over-fish­ing and the de­struc­tion of coral reefs, where tur­tles graze, is threat­en­ing their food sup­ply.

Cli­mate change, too, is hav­ing an im­pact: ris­ing sea lev­els and associated beach ero­sion re­duce the area avail­able for nest­ing – some beaches have be­come un­us­able – and warmer tem­per­a­tures are caus­ing sex changes. The sex of a tur­tle is de­pen­dent on the tem­per­a­ture of the in­cu­bat­ing egg. Warmer eggs de­velop into fe­males, cooler ones into males. Bi­ol­o­gists are re­port­ing that global warm­ing is al­ready re­sult­ing in an im­bal­ance in the sexes for a num­ber of rep­tiles, with wor­ry­ing con­se­quences for mat­ing and the species’s sur­vival. The pre­vi­ous month, un­usu­ally, there was no

ar­rib­ada here, and a lack of avail­able males is one of the rea­sons sus­pected.

That said, by far the big­gest threat to tur­tles is poach­ing. Around the world nest­ing fe­male olive ri­d­leys are slaugh­tered on the beach for their meat, skins and shells, and their eggs are traded as a valu­able del­i­cacy. In the past 20 years, just one gen­er­a­tion, the global pop­u­la­tion has been slashed by a third. The il­le­gal trade in the world’s wildlife is worth more than £12bn a year and threat­ens the sta­bil­ity of gov­ern­ments as well as hu­man health – some 70% of in­fec­tious dis­eases have zoonotic [com­mu­ni­ca­ble from an­i­mals to hu­mans] ori­gins. Il­le­gal wildlife trade is of­ten con­ducted by well or­gan­ised crim­i­nal net­works that un­der­mine gov­ern­ments’ ef­forts to halt other il­le­gal trades, such as arms and drug traf­fick­ing, and help fi­nance re­gional con­flicts.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists like Jairo and a few gov­ern­ment rangers pa­trol this beach dur­ing ar­rib­adas, but they are lit­tle match for de­ter­mined poach­ers, who sell their eggs as aphro­disi­acs on the black mar­ket. On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, I’ve seen tur­tle eggs openly sold and eaten in bars and cafés. The beach of Puerto Moin, on that coast, is used by en­dan­gered leatherback tur­tles and poach­ing is so rife that young con­ser­va­tion­ists – many of whom are vol­un­teers – race to nest­ing sites to dig up the eggs and re­bury them in se­cret, safer lo­ca­tions.

The poach­ers, many of whom are also in­volved in drug crime, have turned vi­o­lent, threat­en­ing and at­tack­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. In May 2013 a young con­ser­va­tion­ist, Jairo Mora, was col­lect­ing tur­tle eggs for re­burial when he was kid­napped and mur­dered by poach­ers. No one was jailed for his mur­der, and Mora joins a grow­ing list of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists killed for pro­tect­ing wildlife in Costa Rica and be­yond. In 2015, the most re­cent year for which records ex­ist, 185 en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists were killed pro­tect­ing nat­u­ral re­sources glob­ally. Only a tiny num­ber of such deaths re­sult in con­vic­tions.

Do you worry about your own safety when you’re out here alone at night, I ask Jairo. “No, the Caribbean is dif­fer­ent,” he says. And then he ad­mits, “Some­times.”

It is fully light now, al­most 6am. Jairo is tired but smil­ing. The beach we’ve had all to our­selves is about to be in­vaded. “Our” tur­tle has fin­ished lay­ing her eggs – she care­fully cov­ers them with sand and lum­bers down to the shore, re­turn­ing to the ocean with the other moth­ers, each hav­ing played their part in the con­tin­u­a­tion of their species. I feel ridicu­lously pro­pri­eto­rial about this beau­ti­ful place, hav­ing watched its sands fill with tur­tles and wit­nessed the pri­vate ef­forts of a mother birthing the next gen­er­a­tion, as night turned to day. From the vil­lage end of the beach, I see a band of about 40 peo­ple ap­proach­ing, car­ry­ing large rice sacks and bas­kets.

For the past few decades, the com­mu­nity here has been try­ing some­thing unique – a con­tro­ver­sial ex­per­i­ment in con­ser­va­tion that aims to main­tain a sus­tain­able tur­tle pop­u­la­tion while ben­e­fit­ing the im­pov­er­ished lo­cal vil­lage. Os­tional is the only place in the world where har­vest­ing olive ri­d­ley tur­tle eggs is le­gal.

Malena Vega comes over to me, a warm smile creas­ing her round face. We’ve spo­ken a cou­ple of times on the phone and she’s kindly of­fered to in­clude me in the ac­tiv­i­ties to­day. She looks up at Jairo and he con­firms that there were more than 1,000 nest­ing tur­tles on the beach, the min­i­mum num­ber re­quired for le­gal egg col­lec­tion. With a friendly wave, he sets off back to the re­search sta­tion for a nap be­fore his even­ing work, and at that mo­ment a horn sounds and egg col­lec­tion can be­gin.

In the late 1980s, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the vil­lage ap­proached bi­ol­o­gists who were study­ing the ar­rib­adas to ask if some­thing could be done to le­galise egg col­lect­ing within sus­tain­able pa­ram­e­ters. They were con­cerned about the huge num­bers of poach­ers who were de­scend­ing on the vil­lage, steal­ing the eggs and in­tim­i­dat­ing lo­cals. A plan was drawn up with the gov­ern­ment, and the self-reg­u­lated, women-run Os­tional De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­a­tion was es­tab­lished to al­low cer­tain fam­i­lies to har­vest a lim­ited num­ber of eggs on the first three morn­ings of an ar­rib­ada. (These eggs would be dam­aged by sub­se­quent nest­ings any­way, and re­searchers cal­cu­late a 5% greater hatch­lings rate fol­low­ing ear­lier egg re­moval.) As part of the agree­ment, the com­mu­nity cleans the beach and pro­tects the tur­tles and their eggs from poach­ers and man­ages the enor­mous num­bers of tourists that de­scend on Os­tional dur­ing ar­rib­adas. The eggs har­vested are li­censed for sale at the same price as chicken eggs to de­ter the black mar­ket, and the pro­ceeds used for com­mu­nity projects.

All around me, lo­cal men and women are danc­ing a taran­tella on the sand, stamp­ing gen­tly in bare feet to find nests. Ev­ery­one is wear­ing some sort of tur­tle mo­tif – on a neck­lace or a printed T-shirt. One by one, they drop and bur­row. There are very few tur­tles on the beach now – the next wave won’t come ashore un­til night­fall. Malena squats be­side me, her hands mov­ing rhyth­mi­cally in the sand to un­cover the denser layer be­low. My heart drops like a stone to my stom­ach as I re­alise this is the nest I watched be­ing so care­fully pre­pared, filled and cov­ered.

“Come here,” Malena calls. I join her and she grabs my hand and pushes it down into the hole. “Can you feel

them?”I root around a bit but am re­lieved to only feel sand. Malena puts her own hand in and ex­pertly re­trieves a cou­ple of eggs, which she puts in her sack. “Try again,” she tells me.

This time, I scoop my hand im­i­tat­ing Malena’s an­gle and feel the eggs. I pull one out. Malena ap­plauds me and re­peat­edly dives back into the hole, bring­ing out hand­fuls of eggs for the sack. She emp­ties the nest, re-cov­ers it and moves a cou­ple of me­tres away to start an­other one. I sit, hold­ing the egg I re­trieved in my hand. It is soft and warm and leath­ery, dent­ing in my grasp. I have be­come the thief of my night­mares, plun­der­ing the nurs­ery as soon as the mother has left. This is the an­tithe­sis of the en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble cul­ture I have been brought up with – steal­ing eggs is bad enough, but steal­ing the eggs of a pro­tected species is un­for­give­able.

“You can eat it raw like that,” Malena calls. And she demon­strates, tear­ing the shell and pop­ping the con­tents in her mouth. Around me, in re­mark­ably short time, sacks have been filled with eggs. It is al­ready hot out here on the black sand and every­body wants to get back to the shade of the vil­lage. I help Malena tie her sack and to­gether we trudge back over the sand to her house. En route, with fre­quent pauses – tur­tle eggs are un­ex­pect­edly heavy – Malena, who is pres­i­dent of the Os­tional De­vel­op­ment As­so­ci­a­tion, tells me how the project has changed the com­mu­nity.

Os­tional is a small, poor vil­lage wedged be­tween two rivers, the moun­tains and ocean. Dur­ing the rainy sea­son, when the rivers flood, the vil­lage is cut off com­pletely and must sur­vive on what­ever food it has stored. Many peo­ple have de­serted Os­tional to find work in the cities. Now, Malena says, the egg li­cens­ing gives peo­ple a liv­ing wage and has paid for train­ing, ma­ter­nity cover and pen­sions. Peo­ple are re­turn­ing to the vil­lage and mak­ing lives for them­selves here. “The tur­tles are our lifeblood,” she says. “We love them. They mean ev­ery­thing to us here.”

But isn’t this sim­ply le­gal­is­ing the poach­ing that was hap­pen­ing be­fore, I ask her. “Be­fore, this was a dan­ger­ous place,” Malena says. “The beach was dirty and full of poach­ers from ev­ery­where. The po­lice came and there were gun bat­tles. My grand­mother got shot by mis­take, and she died. Af­ter that, we said: no more! This is our vil­lage and these are our tur­tles.” I am struck by the fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion of this woman – a grand­mother her­self now – and what she and her band of fe­male neigh­bours have achieved.

We need the world’s re­sources now more than ever – to de­velop the economies of poor coun­tries and to sup­port our grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. But we need to find a way of sus­tain­able ex­ploita­tion. What Malena and her neigh­bours are try­ing in Os­tional is also be­ing tried in rain­forests for tim­ber and in the oceans for fish. It’s too early to tell whether we are truly able to limit our ex­trac­tion of these en­dan­gered re­sources to lev­els that are sus­tain­able, but early signs show that where the long-term needs of com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in these vul­ner­a­ble en­vi­ron­ments are in­cluded, ecosys­tems are man­aged bet­ter.

We have reached Malena’s house now, a sim­ple wooden dwelling sub­di­vided with pan­els, where she lives with her daugh­ter, grand­daugh­ter and a few chick­ens. “You must try a tor­tilla,” she smiles, list­ing nu­mer­ous health­giv­ing prop­er­ties. As she heats a pan on the stove, chops co­rian­der and onion, and whisks up a bowl of freshly gath­ered tur­tle eggs, I pon­der how strangely and ran­domly we as­sign value to liv­ing things – and how deadly the con­se­quences. Many en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists be­lieve the le­gal egg col­lec­tion here con­trib­uted to the mur­der of Jairo Mora by en­sur­ing a mar­ket for tur­tle eggs. Yet I can see how the im­por­tance of the egg mar­ket to this Os­tional econ­omy is giv­ing the tur­tles far greater pro­tec­tion. As we try to ne­go­ti­ate a path be­tween the com­pet­ing de­mands of the hu­man and nat­u­ral worlds, Os­tional shows us that it needn’t be one or the other. In truth, to pro­tect the wildlife, you must also pro­tect hu­man life. The tur­tle omelette was de­li­cious.

This is an edited ex­tract from What’s Next? edited by Jim Al-Khalili and pub­lished by Pro­file (£8.99). To or­der a copy for £7.64 go to guardian­book­shop. com or call 0330 333 6846

Alamy

An olive ri­d­ley sea tur­tle ap­proaches Costa Rica’s Os­tional beach to lay its eggs.

Gaia Vince with a sea tur­tle on Os­tional beach, Costa Rica.

Alamy, AFP/Getty, AP

La ar­rib­ada, clock­wise from main pic­ture: thou­sands of tur­tles on Os­tional beach; lo­cal res­i­dents har­vest the eggs; a vul­ture eats a hatch­ling.

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