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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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.

Record Number of Turtles Released in 2007

Mexican Version of a Barn Raising

The year-end report for the Turtle Sanctuary is in and the volunteers from Juluchuca released a total of 202,854 Golfina sea turtles in 2007. In addition, they released 375 of the highly endangered Leatherback sea turtles. SEMARNAT released a report (in Spanish) stating that 2007 was the year of the turtle as it released a record 50 million turtles last year. We congratulate the all volunteer team with their huge success and for being part of a record year for Mexico and for the sea turtle.

In what looked like the local version of a barn raising, La Tortuga Feliz team is expanding its operations in anticipation of even further growth in 2008.

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Baby Turtle

Just got the stats from the turtle sanctuary team for November.  Over 42,000 baby turtles were released in November.  The Tortuga Feliz is running at 64% higher than last year and are either the number one or number two largest turtle sanctuary in all of Mexico.  With our support, they are now expanding to add more area and better facilities.  I have thought about setting up a non-profit and seeing if we can help drive donations from the US and other “wealthy” nations to support this all volunteer team, but as of now, we will do our best to support them directly.

Also, good news, Baltazar, the head of the team, reports that they have “tenemos un nido de la especie Laúd de 79 Huevos y otro de la especie negra con 110 Huevos” – Translating to: we have 70 eggs from the leatherback turtle (critically endangered) and 110 from the black (actually Green) turtle (also endangered).  How wonderful it is to be part of saving something so threatened.  See what team biologist Gerardo Ceballos has to say about this in a short video about > La Tortuga Feliz (see multimedia section of Playa Viva website).