Tortuguero National Park experienced remarkable changes in the 20th century regarding protection and conservation. For many years it had been a free-for-all turtle poaching site, with hundreds of turtles and thousands of eggs taken annually. The government-imposed ban on all poaching was surprisingly effective and today there is less than 1% of the previous poaching rate. Nonetheless, we are unfortunately still reminded from time to time that poaching continues and will remain an issue for the foreseeable future.
It was discovered on our recent “Jag Walk” (the 15-mile hike from our base to the town of Tortuguero to study jaguar predation on sea turtles) that turtle poaching on the beaches of Tortuguero is quite active at the moment. GVI has been involved in helping to crack down on poaching in Costa Rica for years now, so the presence of poachers is nothing new. However, relatively few poaching incidents had been reported this year along the stretch of beach that GVI monitors in cooperation with the Park Rangers and the Sea Turtle Conservation, and therefore this discovery came as an unpleasant surprise.
A hollowed out turtle, killed for it’s meat
During the recent 10 hour “Jag Walk” spanning 15 miles from our base in Jalova to the town of Tortuguero, our group of 5 found signs of turtle poaching in various forms. Perhaps most unmistakable was a turtle that had nested and on its way back to the ocean had been cut cleanly in half to have the meat harvested, as well as possibly the eggs while it was nesting. In addition to this, we found the tracks of 3 turtles that clearly showed that the turtle was on its way back to the ocean before being dragged the rest of the way and hauled onto the poachers’ boat waiting at sea. All of these locations had bare footprints in the sand, a common sign of poachers. Throughout our walk, we also came across various places where the poachers had stopped the boat and come onto the beach, walked around, but left without taking anything. Nearly all of this poaching activity was from the night before, as rain would have washed away any footprints older than that.
Bare footprints, a sign of poacher activity
Those trails of footprints on the beach, along with the hard evidence of poaching, paint a picture for us of a rather persistent effort on the part of the poachers. Because of the fact that the poachers hit the sections of beach not patrolled daily by GVI (but are patrolled daily by the Rangers and weekly by GVI), it is hard to know if this level of activity is a daily occurrence, or if we coincidentally happened to do this Jag Walk the day after the poachers had come. Either way, we can conclude that the poachers are currently quite active. Considering that the Green Sea Turtle nesting season is nearly over, turtle meat is in high demand and low supply on the black market. Turtle eggs, which are sold as a supposed aphrodisiac in places like bars and nightclubs, are in high demand as always. On the negative side, this means that poaching is especially high at the moment and that nesting turtles are at a very high risk. On the positive side, this level of activity is usually more common at the end of the nesting season and probably does not represent the level of poaching throughout the entyre season.
Because Tortuguero National Park is already very well protected environmentally, illegal poaching is one of the biggest unnatural obstacles in turtle conservation (as opposed to, for example, the relentless vultures that wait for the hatchlings to emerge). GVI is fortunate to be in a position where it can help document and report it. Without this information, the park rangers, with whom GVI works in a close partnership, would be less capable of effectively cracking down on the poachers. It probably will never cease to be a problem entyrely, but observation and data collection, like we were able to do on the Jag Walk, will help us work with the Park Rangers to confront it to the best of our ability.