Jairo Mora Sandoval, the murdered turtle conservationist. (Photo via)
At the end of last month, Costa Rica witnessed its first turtle conservationist murder. On the evening of the 30th of May, Jairo Mora Sandoval and four other conservationists were abducted while carrying out their checks on Moin beach near Limon, a city on the east coast of the country. While the four others were tied up and left in a house, Sandoval was beaten to death. His body was found in the early hours, allegedly with sand stuffed in his mouth – a clear message to conservationists that they should keep their mouths shut.
For years, volunteers in Costa Rica have battled against poachers to protect the endangered leatherback, green and hawksbill turtle species as they move onto the country's beaches to lay their eggs. And despite beatings, robberies and threats at gunpoint, the conservationists protecting the dwindling turtle population have struggled on.
Jairo had been working as a beach monitor for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST). In the immediate aftermath of his death, WIDECAST suspended projects on the stretch of coast where he was killed. However, in other parts of the country the work carries on undisturbed, with many redoubling their efforts and continuing the work that Jairo gave his life to.
A nesting leatherback turtle, one of the breeds Jairo Sandoval was fighting to protect. (Photo via)
I asked Daniela Moeller, the outreach officer at WIDECAST, why poaching is such a problem in Costa Rica. “Many different kinds of poachers come to the beaches during the turtle season,” she told me. “Many of them are drug addicts and their lifestyle prevents them from being accepted in a regular job. Usually they trade turtle eggs, meat and shells for drugs. Mostly crack. Sometimes they are so desperate that they kill a hawksbill turtle for as little as $20 (£12.70). It’s easy money for them – a leatherback turtle egg is worth about $1 (60 pence) [they are believed by some to have aphrodisiac properties] and a turtle lays about 80 to 100 eggs. So, if they find several nests, they can make several hundred dollars a night.”
Drug cartels are also known to operate widely in the area, using the turtle beaches to smuggle in shipments. At the beginning of last year's turtle nesting season, one group of dealers threatened Sandoval with AK-47s, demanding that he stop his patrols. Moeller told me, “Drug dealers take advantage of drug consumers – the poachers. The poachers trade eggs or meat for drugs, then the dealers sell the turtle products on the black market."
The concept of machine gun-toting drug cartels trading narcotics for turtles confused me a little – I couldn't picture any mid-level Manchester dealers swapping a gram for a massacred badger – so I asked Daniela where exactly the value in turtle products lies. "Hawksbill turtle is used to make jewellery or spurs for rooster fights," she explained. "Without a market for drugs or turtle products, this business would die. But as long as there are addicts and people consuming turtle eggs and meat, this commercial trade flourishes.”
Sandoval supervising at a WIDECAST event in 2010. (Photo via)
The problem in most cases is that, although poaching is illegal, the police don't consider it a serious crime. In her six and a half years in Costa Rica, Daniela says she has only seen the police visit the beaches once. Usually they simply lack the manpower or necessary vehicles to get the job done; if a call is made, the police have to clamber into a boat and sail over from another island. By the time they arrive, the poachers and the eggs are usually gone.
Daniela told me, “The main reason for not making poaching the main priority is the drug problem, according to the coast guards I have spoken to. There are a few coast guards who really are interested in helping us, but their superiors aren't supportive, so even groups that want to help are stopped from coming. It's not the individuals, it's the system that fails, because environmental crimes aren't seen as real crimes, and as long as it's like this, the situation won’t change.”
Many believe that Sandoval's murder could have been avoided with more police attention. As well as the previous threat against the murdered conservationist, there was a raid on a hatchery in Moin on the 26th of April, 2012. Armed men burst in during the night and tied up the people working there. Another conservationist, Vanessa Lizano, was also forced to leave her position and relocate to the capital, San Jose, after receiving threats and pictures of her son in the post.
A Costa Rican policeman on a motorbike. (Photo via)
After these incidents, the police did begin to send men on patrol with conservationists, but since that initial period the police support has been sporadic and inconsistent. And when I attempted to contact them for information on the case, the police certainly weren't forthcoming; I received an email all in capitals – and, weirdly, with no spaces – telling me that they wouldn’t give me any information on an ongoing case.
By the beginning of 2013, the police support pretty much dried up altogether, despite the fact that Sandoval had posted messages on Facebook begging for armed police to not be scared, come down and help patrol the beach. Unfortunately, it was him who eventually had to pay the price for the police's lack of commitment. In the wake of his death, conservationists are hoping that the police will begin paying more attention to the problem, meaning Jairo won't have died in vain.
Regardless of police input, the conservationists have continued to patrol and monitor the beaches every night. “If a nesting turtle is found, we wait until she has dug her nest so that we can collect her eggs," Moeller told me. "We record important data, then we tag the turtle and take tissue samples and evaluate the health status. The eggs will either be relocated to a safer area of the beach and well hidden, or we take them to our hatchery, where they will be buried. The hatchery is guarded for 24 hours a day until the nests hatch.”
Despite all their work, Moeller told me, “We only manage to save around 50 percent of the turtle eggs each season. One hundred percent of hawksbill and green turtles would be killed by poachers if they came across them.”
WIDECAST volunteers at work. (Photo courtesy of WIDECAST, via)
Surprisingly, some of the poachers in areas other than Moin have agreed to a treaty of sorts, which dictates that whoever is first to a nesting turtle – the conservationists or poachers – has the rights to their nest. But, Daniela told me, that can often be more infuriating than useful: "Sometimes our people will be sprinting from one end of the beach while poachers sprint from the other. If they beat us to it, we have to accept that the turtle is theirs. It’s so frustrating when you know that they’ll just drag the turtle away and kill it, but we’re powerless to do anything about it. Sometimes there will be 25 poachers waiting on the beach.”
A $10,000 (£6,362) reward has been offered by conservation groups to anyone who helps bring Sandoval’s killers to justice. A week after the murder, two men were arrested with weapons on the beach where he died, but it’s still not clear whether they were even linked to the killing. A memorial fund to Jairo Mora Sandoval has also been set up.
In the meantime, conservationists like Moeller are urging people to support WIDECAST and continue to help out, as their organisation can only survive with the help of volunteers. They are also imploring tourists to stop supporting the turtle trade by refusing to buy any turtle shell souvenirs or eating at restaurants serving turtle meat or eggs. Whatever the outcome of their wishes, Moeller promises that they're not going anywhere and will still be there, night after night, to battle the poachers.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JBazzler
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