Poachers to Conservationists: Sea turtle conservation in rural Mexico

Written by Lissett Medrano

As we celebrate oceans this month, today is specifically dedicated to one of earth’s most ancient sea creaturessea turtles. As we honor this incredible species, it’s important to also recognize the efforts being made at the local level to preserve these endangered species. For the past four months, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with La Tortuga Viva (LTV), a turtle sanctuary ran by volunteers from the local community of Juluchuca, Mexico. I’ve learned that these efforts are not only helping save sea turtles, they are also providing empowerment opportunities for local communities.

Some background on LTV…

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Like many other small fishing communities in Mexico, Juluchuca was once a sea turtle poaching community not that long ago. Due to the large decline in the sea turtle population, the Mexican government established many community-based turtle sanctuaries to help combat this issue. LTV was created in 2001 by ex-poachers and Playa Viva has been collaborating with the camp since 2007, providing them with financial support and other streams of revenue brought on by hotel tourism.

Working with the Camp

I arrived to Juluchuca with two main priorities –  lead the camp relocation project and the camp permit renewal process. Within a few weeks, I discovered there were many internal issues that were hindering the ultimate goal of the camp- preserving sea turtles. So a lot of my time has been dedicated to capacity-building with the camp volunteers; understanding why and how they work, along with empowering them to address the issues, was the first step.

Challenges: Gender roles, Communication and Change

Being the first and only female to work in the male dominated camp, made relationship building quite challenging at first. My work schedule is flexible, but in general my working hours at Playa Viva, which include daily morning turtle releases with hotel guests, checking the sanctuary, and doing sea turtle research, allow for very little interaction time with the volunteers who work full-time jobs during the day. Also, being a new young female in town, it would be frowned upon to jump on nightly patrols with the guys without getting to know them and the community better, not to mention being constantly told that it was “more dangerous” for a female to go on nightly patrol.

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My main contact with the camp was through the camp President, Hector, who I could only communicate with in person since he has no phone or email. Surprisingly, not an easy man to find in such a small town! Through persistence, jumping on any opportunity for group gatherings (Sundays clean ups, meetings etc), and creating new communication channels, like Whatsapp groups for camp volunteers with phones, I’ve managed to build a solid relationship with Hector and get to know the guys more.

Once I established myself as a fellow turtle volunteer, I began to organize and facilitate more meetings where we discussed issues that many volunteers had long since given up on. Most of the time, the meetings didn’t solve any problems, but they were useful in starting a trend to talk openly about issues, rather than complaining in private, which was the norm.

Another challenge was and will continue to be the camp’s resistance to change, which is not too common in Juluchuca. Any suggestions to improve camp operations or try things a different way are often met with stubborn resistance. Even the smallest efforts, like using reusable bags instead of plastic, are met with reasons on why it wouldn’t work. I learned very quickly to approach new ideas carefully and always gather their opinions before proposing anything.

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In addition to everything I’m learning about sea turtles and management in community-based conservation, it’s been incredibly inspiring hearing some of the volunteers stories and seeing how some of them are already evolving into leaders through the camp. Many of these volunteers used to engage in sea turtle poaching and still have friends and family who continue to consume sea turtles. Living in a town with very little economic opportunities, the turtle camp provides these volunteers with a big incentive to shift from poaching to conservation through their monthly food stipends. One volunteer, that goes by Iguana, spent some time in juvenile facility as a teen for stealing turtle eggs. Iguana is now one of the more experienced volunteers and takes great pride in his work as a protector of turtles. He helps train new volunteers in turtle tracking and nest relocation and is also an advocate for turtle protection in a community where turtle consumption is still ongoing

Although challenges remain, LTV’s work has already contributed to the release of over 400,000 sea turtles. We’ve also taken some big steps in moving forward with the camp permit process, have shifted around responsibilities so the tasks don’t all fall on one person and we’ve identified the new turtle camp location and are working to clear the area to begin building. With continued efforts, we hope to have the camp in a place where the volunteers manage themselves, without relying on outside assistance.

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How to help

Understandably, not everyone can move to Mexico and volunteer at a turtle camp, but there are SO many ways to help. Here are a few easy ones!

  • DONATE to our Indiegogo campaign here to build a new sanctuary. The current one is in bad shape  from years of bacteria build-up and ant infestation and needs more security to protect it from the biggest threat on our beach- the badgers! Every dollar counts!
  • SAY NO TO PLASTIC. Plastics end up in our oceans and are consequently consumed by sea turtles due to their resemblance to jellyfish.
  • EAT SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD. The biggest threat to sea turtles is commercial fish trawling. Ensure your seafood is coming from a sustainable source- you can check here.
  • SHARE THE KNOWLEDGE. Know a thing or two about sea turtles? Share the info with friends- protecting the environment is a collective effort.

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“Our Oceans Our Future”

#WorldOceansDay

Happy World Oceans Day!

At Playa Viva (“Living Beach”) it’s in our name to keep our coast and ocean healthy, alive, and thriving. Our oceans are essential to life as we know it on the planet: 70% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean, they help regulate our climate, provide a significant portion of our food, as well as a number of economic, cultural and recreational benefits.

When the owners bought Playa Viva’s land, it was heavily degraded: the coastal lagoon once replete with mangroves was dried up and mangroves were slashed and burned by cattle ranching and monoculture agriculture. Much of the coastal forest ecosystem that once protected the coastline and supported marine life was in a precarious state.

Playa Viva has been working to reverse that through a number of regenerative practices.

LA TORTUGA VIVA

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Some of the members of LTV

La Tortuga Viva (LTV) is one of our longest standing initiatives. LTV began in 2001 (before we were even here!) through a SEMARNAT (Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources) initiative to combat illegal turtle poaching in Mexico. The camp was started by members from the local community, many of whom were once sea turtle poachers themselves, and have since become conservationists. Playa Viva has been working with this sanctuary since 2007, providing them financial support and extra streams of revenue through the tourism brought by the hotel. We’ve been focusing even more energy on the camp with a new role: Turtle Sanctuary Coordinator.

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“I’ve been working with the turtle camp the past 4 months and although I have several projects from relocating the sanctuary to supporting the camp permit renewal process, most of my time has been dedicated to capacity building with the local volunteers. Through relationship building, frequent group meetings, and new communication channels like WhatsApp groups, many internal camp issues, that have hindered the volunteers’ quality of work, are now being addressed. Some positive steps have included empowering some of the younger volunteers to share and implement their ideas for improving the operations of the camp, and therefore sharing responsibilities so that all tasks don’t fall on one person. The goal of my role is to support the camp volunteers so they can manage themselves, without relying outside assistance. Slowly but surely we are moving in the right direction!” – Lissett Medrano, former policy coordinator at Conservation International

Right now this position is not funded. We would love to secure funding for this important role as it is essential for improving conservation management capacity. To donate to this important initiative visit our page on LTV (OR donate to our Indiegogo Campaign!), where we receive tax-deductible donations through our fiscal sponsor, The Ocean Foundation.

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Turtle volunteers transplanting nests into the hatchery

PARTNERSHIP WITH COSTA GRANDE COSTA LIMPIA

More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year. Plastic pollution not only kills and harms marine life, damages and alters habitats, and has substantial negative impacts on local economies, but it also poses a great threat to human health. As plastic debris floats in the seawater and decomposes into microplastics, it absorbs other pollutants that are highly toxic, which have a wide range of adverse health effects. When fish and other marine species eat these plastic pieces, the toxins are absorbed into their body and passed up the food chain and ultimately passed onto our dinner planets.

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Photo Credit: Costa Grande, Costa Limpia

To combat this issue, in addition to the regular beach cleanup we do with La Tortuga Viva, we’ve partnered with Costa Grande Costa Limpia in their effort to clean up the beaches of Costa Grande in Guerrero and run campaigns about the importance of keeping our oceans healthy and free of plastic (80% of the waste found on beaches is exclusively plastic). Their objective is to improve the health of Guerrero’s coastline, to develop jobs for Costa Grande communities and to grow the regional economy through tourism. Villagers from each municipality undergo rigorous training so that they can perpetuate this effort, take care of their environment and change their own consumption habits.

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Costa Grande Costa Limpia brigades finishing for the day at Playa Viva

We hosted several brigades here at Playa Viva, who have collected numerous bags of plastic and other debris–large and small–from our town’s beaches and lagoon. We are overly grateful to have such an important partner in ocean health and conservation!

MANGROVE RESTORATION

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Mangrove restoration area

It has been estimated that in some areas of the world 70-90% of commercial fish species directly rely on mangrove ecosystems. Mangrove forests act as nurseries to many species of fish, crab, shrimp, and mollusk. These fisheries form an essential source of food for thousands of coastal communities around the world.

The dense root systems of mangrove forests also trap sediments flowing down rivers, which stabilizes the coastline and prevents erosion. These trees also filter sediments, protecting coral reefs and seagrass meadows (which are important feeding grounds of our beloved sea turtle!).

For many years mangroves were negatively (and are still!) impacted by the tourism industry. At Playa Viva, we are one of few tourism operations in the world actively restoring the mangrove ecosystem through the revenues generated by the hotel.

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Jose Vargas “Chenca” – the employee who spearheads all of our onsite mangrove restoration work!

At the start of our mangrove restoration project, we engaged with the local community about the importance of mangroves, who didn’t see much use to them other than firewood. They even used to cut some of the root systems down as they were seen as a nuisance when they went fishing in the lagoon and their nets got caught on the roots.

We have different areas of mangrove restoration at work on our property. Some areas we are letting nature take its course, in others we’re practicing an accelerated natural selection. We’ve opened waterway channels to restore the natural flow of the lagoon, created shade to shade out invasive species, planted mangrove saplings, and actively removed invasive species that would otherwise prevent mangroves from flourishing.

We’ve just begun phase two of the coastal lagoon restoration project and opened up a new area for mangrove restoration. We are currently looking for investors to help continue this important effort!

SEAFOOD SUSTAINABILITY

jaquorylunsford-11Playa Viva has just begun its first seafood sustainability assessment. The goal for food sourcing at Playa Viva is to provide transparency in our menus, build strong relationships with local providers, and use ingredients that are seasonal, organic and just.

Accordingly, with my role as Social & Environmental Impact Officer, I’m tasked with ensuring we’re doing all these things! When I first arrived at Playa Viva, I received a lot of questions such as, “Was this fish caught today? Did you purchase this from a local fisher? Is this seafood sustainable?” I honestly didn’t have the answers, so I began to investigate. My first stop was to talk with one of our conservation partners Katherina Audley, from Whales in Guerrero Research Project, an amazingly passionate woman who has fished for two decades in the area and actively working to promote a healthy ocean here in Guerrero.

I have been receiving a ton of support on this project from Romain, a “volunteer” with a lot of great experience. Romain came to Playa Viva to work on this project after having worked on a number of conservation and development projects in fishing communities in Africa and Asia, most recently with the FAO’s FishAdapt project in Myanmar. He has spearheaded the project, tracing where the hotel’s seafood is coming from, investigating local fishing regulations and ensuring that we are purchasing seafood that is socially and ecologically sustainable. The next stage of the project is to work with hotel management and local fishing cooperatives to source fish locally and directly from small-scale producers in order to support the local economy and regenerate healthy fisheries.

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Romain in Cayacal, meeting with local fishermen

A healthy ocean is integral to live in the coastal ecosystem of which Playa Viva is apart. We honor and celebrate the fragile strength and limited bounty of the oceans today, especially the delicate balance that people and the ecosystem must maintain in order to reverse the decline and regenerate this vital ecosystem.

 

La Tortuga Viva: Predator-Proofing 101

 

Turtle Sanctuary

With an average of 6 turtle nests ransacked by predators each night, the more that our volunteer team can reach and relocate to the safe, secure haven of  La Tortuga Viva Turtle Sanctuary, the better!

Yet our rivals – mainly coatis and tejones – are a cunning bunch, and as they refuse to rest on their laurels, nor can we.

So as they continue to adapt and find new, innovative ways to defy our sanctuary security measures,  so must we strive to stay one step ahead. (And if there’s anything we relish, it’s a challenge!)

Cue our January renovation project:  Predator-Proofing Round Two.

Our mission? To rethink our security strategy, helping us to remain in the winning corner for the 6th year running…

Step 1: Strengthening the Structure 

While our unique position – just a stone’s-throw away from the seashore – is one of our favourite features, Playa Viva’s picturesque setting still brings with it a couple of drawbacks. Case in point: weathering.

Although we carefully select the most durable local materials available when building our 100% natural structures – from our eco-casitas and yoga studio, to our plant nursery and turtle sanctuary – we’re also well aware, that soon enough, these will all require an upgrade.

Thankfully, many hands do indeed make light work, and so our team of volunteers – permaculture staff, locals and international workers – made replacing the 100+ wooden posts that lined the sanctuary perimeter, and provided sturdy support for the mesh roofing, look a lot easier than 5 days of solid work under the burning sun would suggest!

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Step 2: Climb-Prevention Canopies

Fearing that turtle egg predators weren’t far off mastering their mesh-climbing skills, and would soon be scaling our wired walls with spiderman-like ease, it was time to put our heads together. Head of permaculture, Sapo – known for his awe-inspiring problem-solving powers – came up with a solution in no time, a mosquito-mesh canopy, along with a comprehensive construction plan detailing how exactly the design would work.

(That’s one of the beauties of being part of a living, breathing, continually-evolving project such as Playa Viva; who needs a blueprint when you’ve got your killer instincts to rely on, and sufficient head-space to hear them!)

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Thus, the team set about cutting the mosquito mesh to size; threading pliable wire through the top and bottom (the top, to attach it to the wire mesh; the bottom, to hold the mesh between posts in place); fitting wooden supports to the perimeter posts; and finally, attaching the mesh to the wooden supports. So coati be warned – you may get up, but you certainly won’t get over!

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Step 3: Blocking the Diggers

Having dealt with the ‘up and over’ style of break-in, our final step was to thwart the attempts of those who may call our bluff, and choose the ‘down and under’ approach…

For this solution, mesh came up trumps again – as did Sapo – who decided that a deeply-embedded, double-mesh-whammy would create the ultimate predator barrier.

And so, trenches were dug, wire mesh walls were pulled down and repositioned, and an extra mosquito mesh was laid on the inside – all ensuring that no creature, however great or small can pass through the net…quite literally!

 

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La Tortuga Viva (The Living Turtle) Background: Situated at the southeast corner of Playa Viva, the sanctuary is run by an all-volunteer staff, comprised of members of the local community. These are fisherman and farmers who recognized the damage being done to the local turtle population and decided to make a difference.

To make a donation click here.
Read the 2012-13 Annual Report click here.

How Lucky to Participate in Protecting a Life So Rare

Guest blog, submitted by Debbie Greenberg

Turtle at Sunrise
Photo by to Anna L. Hartmann

One week ago I was fortunate enough to accompany members of the La Tortuga Viva turtle sanctuary on one of their nightly patrols of the beach near Playa Viva and beyond. They search for sea turtle nests in order to protect the eggs from poachers and predators by moving them to their nursery for safekeeping until they hatch and are released.

It was very interesting to see first-hand the work done by these local volunteers and better understand the effort they make every night and early morning (one patrol is from 10 p.m. to about midnight and another begins at 4 a.m.) The stars over the ocean were incredible as we bounced along on the group’s one all-terrain vehicle.  Elias, head of Tortuga Viva and my guide for the night, explained how to look for turtle tracks and nests. We were unlucky, though: we found two nests, but unfortunately human poachers had beat us to them and the eggs were gone. We also saw 3 dead turtles at different points along the beach, most likely drowned at sea by the nets of fishing trawlers.

All was not lost, we were tremendously lucky because when we got back to the nursery enclosure at midnight a nest was hatching, and I actually got to see the baby turtles making their way up through the sand! Elias gently began moving sand aside and carefully collected handfuls of baby Olive Ridley turtles for release back to the ocean.

One week later, when we WWOOF volunteers arrived at Playa Viva for work at 6:30 a.m. we were told by the Playa Viva team that a turtle was on the beach right in front of the hotel. We ran pell-mell down to the sand, scrambling for our cameras, fearful of missing the sight; lucky for us the turtle wasn’t moving too fast, so we were able to watch as she lumbered back into the sea. It was a very big turtle (about 3-4 feet long) and it turns out we were really lucky because it was extremely rare Black turtle, called “Prieta” by the locals (chelonia agassizii).

The turtle sanctuary volunteers were on hand, waiting for her to go back to sea before protecting her eggs by securing them from predators in the sanctuary. It was so exciting to see the tracks she had made coming up the beach, the two false nests she had made (apparently a natural defense mechanism against predators) and her tracks going down. The volunteers who were there gently probed the sand with a long stick, trying to find the true nest, but were worried they might damage the eggs. One went back to town to fetch a couple of more veteran Tortuga Viva members while the other stayed here to mark the spot and guard the nest against possible interference. He explained that although they had been working on the patrol for a year, they had never found a Prieta nest before. Once senior patrol members Elias and Hector arrived, they knew right where to look, and began to dig. Hector is tall and has long arms, but he dug down until he was leaning almost completely into the hole before finding the eggs. He began to gently bring them up, two or three at a time; they were round and about the size of large golf balls. 81 eggs in all!

By this time they had an audience of all the WWOOF volunteers, a Playa Viva staff member who had brought down a shovel to help if necessary, and several Playa Viva guests. The eggs were placed in a couple of bags and taken to the turtle sanctuary, and we followed them watch the rest of the process of securing the eggs for incubation. Once the eggs were safely buried in their new, man-made nest 65 cm deep, we were given a ride back to Playa Viva.

The Black turtle is highly endangered; lucky for her to have concerned volunteers on hand to safeguard her eggs, and what luck for us to have witnessed a species so rare to be almost extinct.

Season 4 Photo Contest – Winner Announced

Anna Hennings 1Season 4 Photo Contest is finally complete. The book has gone to the press. The judges all got their votes in and while we had way too many great images all three judges only had 4 images that they all three agreed upon. When the book went to press, this image by Anna Hennings won our grand prize, a free stay at Playa Viva.  So many great photos didn’t even make it into “the book.”  We thank you all for your submissions and thank our three photographer/editor judges: Jay Premack, Amanda Holmes and Bryce Lankard for their time and energies as judges.  Thank you and come visit us in Season 5.

So, how did we decide on which photos to include, first a photography had to have at least two votes to be included in the book. with over 500 photos submitted many had just one vote, but only a total of 37 images had two votes and 8 had three votes. The final selection of the winning photograph out of the top 8 photos came down to a very simple editorial process. Which of these photos looked best on the cover of the book and which embodied the themes of this years entries.  The themes that permeated the winning photos were fun/whimsy/sense of humor along with nature/peace/joy. The cover photo by Anna Hennings contained all these great qualities of the simple joy that we all share in heading out to the shore with a bucket full of baby turtles to release. Congratulations to Anna and thank you to all of you who submitted so many great photographs.

Giving Back

HeartYogaPlayaVivaZBetween Thanksgiving and Christmas our mailboxes, both real and virtual, are filled with holiday cards that remind us how much younger we are not getting, catalogs that remind us to be good consumers and solicitations that remind us to donate to deserving causes.  Playa Viva did its part when we recently sent an email requesting support for the local community of Juluchuca and the turtle sanctuary “La Tortuga Viva” – “Buy a Baby Turtle” for the holidays.

Related to the holidays, I just got a list from our accountants of all the donations we made of free stays at Playa Viva in support of deserving causes. Primarily we support groups that promote environmental conservation/restoration and social impact. In social impact, we focus our support education, health and economic development especially for the Hispanic community.  If you have a group that promotes these goals, let us know how we can help.

Here is a short list of some of the groups that received donations of free stays at Playa Viva (auctioned off to raise money for their cause): KCRW – Public Radio in Los Angeles, the Oceanic Society, A Home Away From Homelessness, Liberty Hill FoundationRenaissance Entrepreneurship Center, Pacific Community VenturesTibetan Aid ProjectBaywood Elementary SchoolHillsborough Schools FoundationSidewell Friends SchoolWestside Waldorf SchoolServices Immigrant Rights & Education Network, La Casa Del Las Madres and many more. Several of these donations were done in conjunction with our flight partner Aeromexico.

We encourage you to give the gift of charity this year to help those in need and to protect that which needs our stewardship and care. Thank you.

 

Birthday Without Presents? Yes, This Is a Happy Story…

Maya with her sister and a poster she made of the marine turtle rescue work by La Tortuga Viva

When Maya celebrated her birthday recently she did something very, very special. Rather than contribute to conspicuous consumption she made a sacrifice few kids would make. She forsook the treasure trove of toys in exchange for giving back to nature. Read the details in our interview with Maya below.

Playa Viva” How did you get the idea to raise money for the turtle sanctuary?”
Maya “Because I always got presents and I knew how long I played with them which was just one day, and I thought maybe I should do something else for this birthday. “

Playa Viva – “How did you pick La Tortuga Viva?”
Maya – “Because it is the only one I know of and I really like how it helps save the most endangered turtles.”

Playa Viva – “How did you raise the money?”
Maya – “I asked everybody that came to my party not to bring gifts and to instead donate that money they would have been spending on presents.”

Playa Viva – “Did you learn anything about turtles and how people rescue turtles?”
Maya – “Yes. I learned that turtles are very endangered because people eat them and take the eggs from their nests and eat them too.  That causes there to be fewer turtles in the world, and their population is going down.  To rescue them, they cut off the beaches from cars and people.  After they hatch, they help the baby turtles into the ocean so they can be free.”

Playa Viva – “Was it fun and what did you enjoy about doing a fundraiser for your party?”
Maya – “It was fun because I knew the turtles would be safe and I knew I was doing something good.”

Maya, we applaud you for your sacrifice and commitment to making a contribution to promoting biodiversity and improving the chances of survival for marine turtles.  The funds raised by Maya were used to purchase cyclone fencing to expand the turtle sanctuary in order to have room to protect more eggs and thus more turtles. Thank you Maya and to all who attended your party and gave generously.