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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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.

Perfect Timing

The day after I arrived at Playa Viva I hopped on a 4-wheeler and rode a few minutes over to the Tortuga Viva turtle sanctuary. The rows and rows of markers looked a little like miniature headstones, but instead they served the opposite purpose. As the mother turtles had come onshore the night before to deposit their eggs, local volunteers were there to gather them and transfer each batch to the safety of the sanctuary. Now, they were marking last night’s finds so they’d be ready when in two months’ time these eggs hatched into baby sea turtles.

¿Número?
174.
¿Fecha?
7 de agosto.
¿Huevos?
63.
¿Tipo?
Golfina.

As I watched, the volunteers marked each of the previous night’s finds—recording the nest number, the number of eggs, the type of turtle, and the date.

Fast forward one week and I’m back at Playa Viva, relaxing before the start of a new week, when I hear the 4-wheeler headed down the beach from the turtle sanctuary. The volunteers arrive carrying a bucket, and when I peer inside I see tens of scrambling baby sea turtles – the first hatchlings of the year!

My timing couldn’t have been better: one week earlier I was watching eggs go into the ground for their two month incubation period, and now here I was looking at the season’s first set of turtles ready to be released into the ocean. Julia (Playa Viva’s manager), the two volunteers, and I made our way down to the waves where they poured the turtles onto the sand and we all watched as they scrambled toward the ocean.

Tortuga Viva’s volunteers told me that last year they released more than 100,000 baby sea turtles into the ocean. My fortunate timing—seeing eggs buried one week and baby turtles entering the ocean the next—is the result of the time and dedication these volunteers devote to gathering and caring for the eggs that mother turtles leave on Juluchuca’s shoreline. They protect the eggs from predators and poachers and shepherd the baby turtles back to the ocean when they hatch. Playa Viva supports and partners with local volunteers to support these conservation efforts.

Check out the video below to see this year’s first release, or, better yet, come down to Playa Viva to see it for yourself!

Nick’s Turtle Video from Playa Viva on Vimeo.

Do Your Part in Saving over 100,000 Baby Sea Turtles

It’s been a while since we have posted statistics for the turtle sanctuary.  See updated statistics in the graph to the right.  The good news is that we are now supporting La Tortuga Viva, a group of local volunteers who have worked hard this year in protecting and releasing close to 100,000 baby turtles. We hope you will join us in continuing to support the turtle sanctuary through your donations. For more on our transition from La Tortuga Feliz to La Tortuga Viva – see our annual report online.

How can you help:

For just $20 you can buy a baby turtle as a gift for a friend or relative over the holidays, please go to The GreaterGood.org.

Alternatively, make a tax deductible donation of $50 or $100 or more directly with our fiscal sponsor, the Ocean Foundation, by clicking here.

We just purchased 4 new tires for the ATV with the assistance of a grant of $2000 from the Minnesota Foundation. Next year we have the opportunity to double the number of turtles we can protect and release back to the ocean. Please help us in reaching our goal of raising $10,000 for the turtle sanctuary to purchase a new ATV and provide gas for a year of operation.

Thank you for your support.

Dia de la Tierra en la Comunidad de Juluchuca

Dia de la tierra, que gran oportunidad para convivir con la comunidad y como regalo de la naturaleza tuvimos tambien el nacimiento de las tortugas del nuevo campamento.

La liberacion de las mismas la hicimos enfrente de las cabanas de Playa viva al atardecer, invitamos a todos los empleados de Playa Viva, Los chicos de Permacultura y por supuesto a todos los Voluntarios del Campo tortuguero y sus familias, esperabamos tener alrededor de 50 invitados y al final tuvimos mas de 100, fue fabuloso ver como todos llegaron muy emocionados y llenos de espectacion para presenciar el evento. Fue maravilloso ver las caras de los niños y sus padres cuando las primeras tortuguitas fueron alcanzadas por las olas. Despues todos se quedaron a cenar y la convivencia fue muy agradable. Es muy satisfactorio sentir la aceptacion de la comunidad hacia Playa Viva, esto es precisamente lo que buscamos, crecer en armonia, crear un ambiente de fraternidad donde todos vayamos en la misma direccion hacia el mismo ojetivo, que al conseguirlo los mas beneficiados sean la comunidad y el medio ambiente que nos rodea.

Turtle Sanctuary – Volunteer Opportunities

TurtleStatsGraphJune2009Playa Viva is working jointly with WildCoast/CostaSalvaje on a summer turtle volunteer program at La Tortuga Feliz, the turtle sanctuary at Playa Viva in Juluchuca, Mexico (30-minutes south of Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa).  We have two options, one upscale staying at the “eco-lux” accommodations of Playa Viva and the second is more modest plan staying in Juluchuca in the homes of local townspeople. Part of the fee for attending will go as a donation to WildCoast to continue their work in turtle conservation throughout the coast of Mexico.  If you have questions about this program and would be interesting to join this September or October, please send us an email to info @ PlayaViva.com.

Just to catch up those of you tracking the progress of the volunteers at La Tortuga Feliz, here are the statistics for last month.  Overall, the results are 27% down from same time last year, so that is why it is so important to have your support in person or through donations to provide the resources necessary to keep the turtle safe.

For a video about La Tortugo Feliz go to the Multimedia section of Playa Viva’s website and click on the video entitled “La Tortuga Feliz

Playa Viva Refracted in a New Light

Brown Pelicans Surfing the Waves
Brown Pelicans Surfing the Waves

In the last few days I’ve received some of the best photographs ever taken at Playa Viva.  While we have been involved in this place for close to three years, the images that are captured there still do not cease to amaze me.  Just when you thought you saw all of Playa Viva, someone sends you slices of life from Playa Viva that refract the place in a whole new light. 

In late January, Daniel Camarena, an amateur photographer, naturalist and co-founder of Mexican non-profit Gente Como Nosotros (translates to “People Just Like Us”) spent 3 days in Playa Viva taking pictures of the wildlife.  His primary purpose for the trip was to photograph the birth and migration to the sea of the highly endangered Leatherback (Laud) turtle.  The turtle sanctuary, La Tortuga Feliz, had reported to us that a nest of Laud turtles had been found and the eggs were scheduled to hatch on that weekend.  Daniel and Gente Como Nosotros are in the process of deploying an environmental education  project in Mexico that will involve hundreds of schools and thousands of school children.  As part of this project, they wanted to capture the Laud Turtle for promotion and adoption by the school kids for environmental protection – we will provide you with more on this project as it gets formally released.

Daniel took photos of the volunteers of the turtle sanctuary at work in collecting and storing eggs safely in the sanctuary. He also got great images of the birds of Playa Viva and the landscape.  Enjoy PowerPoint below.