The State of Turtles in Nicaragua
“Nothing is ever simple.”
We walked north along the beach conflicted about what was happening behind us, as the two men picked up the Olive Ridley sea turtle for the fourth time and carried it back up the beach, dropping it into a man-made ‘nest’ they had scooped out of the sand in an effort to induce the sea turtle to lay its eggs. After lying prone for a few moments, the sea turtle awkwardly and slowly turned itself again toward the ocean and started crawling. As we walked away from the scene and periodically looked over our shoulders back down the beach, we saw one of the men drop to his knees and start digging another ‘nest’.
For Nicaraguans, sea turtle eggs have traditionally been part of their diet and are also highly coveted as a good source of additional income due to the high price of turtle eggs. While there are protected areas for sea turtles along both coasts, generally being the areas where, during certain times of the year, thousands of turtles arrive each night to lay eggs, the majority of both coasts are unmonitored and egg harvesting goes on unchecked. Even more serious for the sea turtles population is the market and trade in sea turtle meat that still exists on the Caribbean Nicaraguan coastline. All five types of sea turtles that are found along the Nicaraguan coast are either endangered or critically endangered, but these cultural and economic realities make the issue of protecting these species much more complex.
On the surface, the issue is simple from the view of protecting our threatened environment and stopping practices that could cause a species’ extinction. Our first response to seeing these two men on the beach with the turtle was to try to start a conversation in Spanish by saying, “Is she ready?”, and, politely, “Could you tell us what are you doing with the turtle?” Neither attempt was remotely acknowledged by the men and it was clear that they were intent on doing what they set out to do without any interference.
From our environmental outlook, it was difficult to witness and not intervene in what was unfolding on the beach, but as we stood there debating what we could do, we all started talking about why this was happening both culturally and economically. We’ve talked with quite a few locals about the issue during our first month here and while attitudes are changing a bit towards protection, old habits and needs still take precedence. After starting to walk in silence further up the beach, a clearly conflicted Grant commented that “nothing is ever simple”.
A few days later, though, we visited a protected wildlife reserve called Refugio de Vida Silvestre Río Escalante Chacocente (Wildlife Reserve Rio Escalante-Chacocente) further north up the coast. When the sea turtles start coming ashore to lay eggs (the “season” runs from July-December), people from the reserve dig up most of the eggs, transport them to nesting sites and protect them until they are ready to hatch, eventually bringing the hatchlings back down to the beach for release. As up to 20,000 turtles a month come ashore during September and October this amounts to quite a process but it was interesting to learn that members of the reserve work alongside local Nicaraguan families who are allowed to gather a set quota of eggs during the year in a way to successfully manage local needs with larger environmental goals. Even better, the reserve is attempting to be a community cooperative and has a wonderful website that explains their goals.
It is true that ‘nothing is ever simple’ but working together towards a shared future is clearly the model going forward. We can all learn and benefit from a lesson like that. - Ryan
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