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COSTA RICA
Leatherbacks at risk
Bryan Kay
1/31/2008
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Local community leaders and organizations team up to spread importance of endangered animal.

The numbers of Pacific leatherback turtles, the charismatic giant marine turtle are falling rapidly. In the last 20 years, an estimated 90 percent of them have disappeared — many of their nesting sites are under threat and their safety in the heavily-fished Pacific Ocean has diminished drastically.

Some may say the leatherback is fighting a losing battle to survive, but according to biologists in Costa Rica, home to one of the most important nesting sites for the Pacific leatherback, a few recent victories have been recorded.

Biologists with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), activists and members of beach town communities are in the midst of a four-pronged fight to save the species.

Carlos Drews, the coordinator of the WWF’s Marine Turtle Conservation program in Latin America and the Caribbean, says the species’ population crash can be pinned to four major threats: accidental or incidental fishing, egg poaching, beachside developments and climate change.

Drews, a Colombian biologist, illustrated the leatherback’s demise with a glaring statistic.

“In the last three decades the numbers we have seen arriving at Playa Grande [the main Pacific nesting site for the leatherback] has gone from 1,800 to 50-120,” he said.

The main threat is from by-catch or incidental capture of non-target species, which claims the lives of 50,000 marine turtles every year.

In a bid to reduce the by-catch of endangered species, more than 250 global fishermen met at the World Fisheries Forum in the Costa Rican port town of Puntarenas in November and vowing to tackle the problem.

One method currently being deployed is to change the type of fishing hook from a ‘J’ shaped instrument to a circular one. Tests have shown by-catch of turtles can be reduced by as much as 90 percent with the apparently kinder hooks, without affecting fishing levels.

Starting small
But one of the WWF’s proudest achievements involves a small project in the tiny northwestern beach town of Playa Junquillal, Guanacaste, near the symbolic Playa Grande, known as the home of the leatherback due to its importance as one of the most important nesting sites in the whole of the Pacific.

The community-based initiative, which sought to transform poachers into protectors, saw turtle egg poaching undergo a crash of its own, from 100 percent to a near zero, the WWF said. Drews described the community effort as a “model” for other communities.

Known as the Pacific Leatherback Conservation Project, local youngsters and student researchers have been working for two years to halt egg poaching, according to Gabriel Francia, the biologist who leads the project.

He has enlisted a small group of volunteers dedicated to protecting the turtles, carrying out patrols of the beaches around Junquillal around the clock.

Despite the relative success, Francia lamented a recent surge in turtle egg poaching in the area, which has been linked to an influx of people working in the area’s burgeoning construction developments.

“These people don’t have children in schools, they don’t have any commitment in the area,”said Francia.

One of the key planks of the project is work in the local schools. Francia said the hope is that children take the message about the dangers of turtle egg poaching home to their parents.

New customs
Biologist Valerie Guthrie, another of the project organizers, said they cannot completely rule out local residents as responsible for the recent climb since eating turtle eggs is a new custom in the Junquillal area.

But she said moves were now being made to work in conjunction with the construction companies to disseminate the same message.
Francia, however, was scathing in his criticism of the developments being thrown up in the greater Guanacaste area.

Plush condominiums and apartment buildings are starting to dominate parts of the coast. As these developments go up in areas near turtle nesting sites, said Francia, newly-born young become disorientated by the bright lights, halting their development and threatening populations.

Francia said there is no place for the encroaching buildings when nature is under threat. He said the planners who allow such developments to get the green light also threaten Costa Rica’s reputation as a country dedicated to ecological preservation.

Meanwhile, members of the public say they are noticing the difference the project has made. German hotel owner Rainer Frommlet said the project had been successful, but reckons around half of local residents continue to flout the law.

“The ratio of those who respect the turtles to those who don’t is probably still 50-50,” he said. “But before it was probably 70-30 against.”

Reformed poachers Jaime and Menor Jen, two of the local volunteers, blame much of the residual poaching on alcoholics who steal the eggs to support their addiction.

“The problem with alcoholics is they take them in order to get alcohol,” said Jaime. “They sell them for 2000 or 3000 colons ($4-$6) for 100.”

During a recent patrol of the beaches at Junquillal, they told how they had been unaware of the damage they were causing to marine turtle populations until the project began.

The project also works with the olive ridley and the black turtles and as the Jen brothers spoke of their fondness for the creatures, an olive ridley emerged from the sea to spawn.

The pair waited patiently as the turtle laid 106 eggs in a nest it had burrowed in the sand, before collecting and replacing them in another spot where poachers will be less likely to find them.

They carry out the patrols every night, but claim they have no intention of returning to their old ways. “We learned about the problems in the sea and the numbers. Plus, they are beautiful,” added Jaime.


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Menor (left) and Jaime with an olive ridley turtle that has recently spawned. (Photo: Bryan Kay)
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