Blood in the Sand – Costa Rica’s turtle egg poachers are willing to kill anyone who gets in their wayPosted by Jim at Friday, January 03, 2014
By Matthew Power
2 January 2014
(Outside Magazine) – It was only eight o'clock on the evening of 30 May 2013, but the beach was completely dark. The moon hadn't yet risen above Playa Moín, a 15-mile-long strand of mangrove and palm on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. A two-door Suzuki 4x4 bumped along a rough track behind the beach. The port lights of Limón, the largest town on the coast, glowed six miles away on the horizon. There was no sound except the low roar of surf and the whine of the engine straining through drifts of sand.
Riding shotgun was Jairo Mora Sandoval, a 26-year-old Costa Rican conservationist. With a flop of black hair and a scraggly beard, he wore dark clothes and a headlamp, which he used to spot leatherback sea turtle nests on the beach. Mora's friend Almudena, a 26-year-old veterinarian from Spain, was behind the wheel. The other passengers were U.S. citizens: Rachel, Katherine, and Grace, college students who had come to work at the Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal-rescue center. Almudena was the resident vet, and the Americans were volunteers. By day they cared for the sanctuary's menagerie of sloths, monkeys, and birds. Working with Mora, though, meant taking the graveyard shift. He ran the sanctuary's program rescuing endangered leatherbacks, which haul their 700-plus-pound bodies onto Playa Moín each spring to lay eggs at night.
The beach's isolation made it both ideal and perilous as a nesting spot. The same blackness that attracted the turtles, which are disoriented by artificial light, provided cover for less savory human activity. In recent years, the thinly populated Caribbean coast has become a haven for everything from petty theft to trafficking of Colombian cocaine and Jamaican marijuana. For decades, Playa Moín has been a destination for hueveros—literally, "egg men"—small-time poachers who plunder sea turtle nests and sell the eggs for a dollar each as an aphrodisiac. But as crime along the Caribbean coast has risen, so has organized egg poaching, which has helped decimate the leatherback population. By most estimates, fewer than 34,000 nesting females remain worldwide.
Since 2010, Mora had been living at the sanctuary and patrolling the beach for a nonprofit organization called the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, or Widecast. His strategy was to beat the hueveros to the punch by gathering eggs from freshly laid nests and spiriting them to a hatchery on the sanctuary grounds. This was dangerous work. Every poacher on Moín knew Mora, and confrontations were frequent—he once jumped out of a moving truck to tackle a huevero. [more]