Catholics' Fervor for Turtle Flesh During Lent Threatens Endangered Species in Colombia

Though hunters and vendors face fines for wildlife trafficking, they don’t have many other options.
March 24, 2021, 4:00pm
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As Easter approaches, conservationists are urging Catholics to curb their appetite for the turtles in Colombia. (Photo: Alexandre Morin-Laprise/Getty)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Every year, devout Catholics gather for a special meal on Good Friday. Around the world, many turn to fish and chicken to stand in for red meats during Lent. But in Yannys Peñalosa’s family, every Good Friday is celebrated with freshwater turtle, cooked in coconut milk and plated with beans and rice.

“This is a recipe that has been handed from my grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” said Peñalosa, a 49-year-old housewife in Barranquilla, a port city on Colombia's Atlantic Coast. “Almost everyone in our family eats turtle and those that don’t are numbered.”

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Peñalosa’s family is not the exception. Eating slider turtles, iguanas, and crocodiles for Lent is a widespread cultural practice in northeastern Colombia that dates back to pre-Columbian times when the indigenous Zenú people preyed on reptiles living in the vast wetlands and freshwater rivers that run across the region.

But as Easter approaches this year, conservationists are urging Catholics to curb their appetite for the turtles, while authorities are cracking down on the vendors and restaurants supplying these forbidden delicacies. 

The sale of wildlife species is a crime in Colombia, punishable by up to eight years in prison and a $7.5 million fine. The massive sanctions, in place since the 1980s, are intended to discourage wildlife extraction, now one of the largest illicit economies in Colombia, from the country’s biodiverse ecosystems. 

In a bizarre twist, authorities say that these local Catholic traditions, deeply ingrained within communities along the Atlantic Coast, are one of the main drivers of wildlife trafficking. According to Colonel Jhon Alzate Duque, the national police’s protection and special services director, cultural celebrations during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter increase the trafficking of species and the deterioration of their natural habitats. 

Colombia’s National Police, tasked with the prevention and control of wildlife commercialization, has ramped up operations to dissuade the trade. In 2020, police confiscated 6.45% more animal species in contrast to the year before. This year, 195 citizens have been arrested for environmental crimes related to wildlife trafficking and 973 animals confiscated, according to National Police. 

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There are no exact figures on the illicit trade, but police reports indicate that nearly 20,000 animals were confiscated last year. Among the most trafficked species are the green iguana, the morrocoy turtle, and the hicotea turtle — all of which are considered delicacies for Lent and Good Friday celebrations.

“Holy Week in Colombia is a critical time for many wildlife species,” said Maria Piedad Baptiste, a researcher at the Humboldt Institute, in a report released last month on the species affected by trafficking during Lent. “This is all due to the high consumption of their meat and eggs.” According to the Humboldt Institute, the state’s environmental research facility, 1 to 2 million hicotea slider turtles are exploited every year in Colombia, with demand peaking in the week before Easter. The population of the hicotea, endemic to Colombia and Venezuela, has been so decimated that in 2015 the institute classified the species as vulnerable to extinction. 

Though the risks are high for many vendors, the profits made during Holy Week are enough to outweigh the dangers. One illicit vendor told VICE World News that over the span of a week, he earns about $2,500 while buying and reselling hicotea turtles for customers in larger cities. 

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“You get used to the risks,” said the vendor, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “You just know that you have to do it, otherwise people won’t be able to enjoy their Holy Week. It’s that delicious.”

The vendor, who buys the freshwater turtles from hunters in the rural Sucre province, said that the majority of the sellers are farmhands who hunt to supplement their meager income. Hunters profit less from wildlife commercialization, making only $1.50 off of each turtle. Yet, according to the vendor, it often beats the less than $4 a day they earn laboring on Colombia’s large-scale maize plantations.

“Necessity drives people to sell hicotea,” said the vendor, adding that hunters can feed their families for three months from sales made during Lent. In an area beset by poverty and unemployment, this may help explain why half of Sucre’s population—about 500,000 people—participate in turtle harvesting.

The vendor believes that providing dignified employment opportunities to hunters and vendors could help solve the problem and some environmental authorities are already working on alternatives to criminalization. “Seeing how impoverished some of these communities are, we can’t prohibit consumption,” said Julieth Prieto, a conservationist working in the country’s northern Magdalena province with environmental authorities. “What we do is focus on environmental education.”

In a campaign led by Prieto, educators instruct students on more sustainable practices of eating turtle sliders at home. They’re taught to set aside eggs in a planter filled with soil, in which they hatch after a 60-day incubation period. They rescue some 4,000 turtles from consumption every year, said Prieto, who hopes that student volunteers can eventually become paid employees. An initiative like this could be a welcome opportunity in remote areas like the Sucre province. 

Ultimately, alternative economic opportunities may offer the best chance for endangered hicotea turtles to thrive once again. Trafficking is “never going to end unless the government generates new employment opportunities for us,” said the vendor.