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The female park rangers protecting turtles from traffickers in Nicaragua

  • The female park rangers in Nicaragua’s San Juan del Sur area patrol the beaches against the theft of eggs from endangered sea turtles that nest there.
  • Species like the leatherback turtle have dwindled to less than 3 percent of their population in the eastern Pacific in the last three generations.
  • In Nicaragua, an estimated more than 6,000 dozen turtle eggs are sold every month, with restaurants by the coast offering them in dishes as part of their menus.
  • The NGO that hires the rangers say they manage to preserve 90 percent of turtle nests on the beaches they patrol, compared to 40 percent on government-patrolled beaches.

The lights draw uncertain lines under the blanket of stars that joins the sea to the sky at El Ostional Beach in southern Nicaragua, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the border with Costa Rica. The silence of the darkness is interrupted by the noise of waves crashing on the shore and the clicks of flashlights turning off and on again a few meters apart, like lonely fireflies.

The flickering flashlights belong to hueveros, turtle egg traffickers who scour the beaches of La Flor Wildlife Refuge, a marine conservation area, every night.

“Tonight, there are quite a few hueveros because an olive ridley sea turtle laid its eggs yesterday,” says Yajaira Vargas, a park ranger at El Ostional. “They usually nest during the waning moon.”

Vargas, 30, is one of the five women who work as park rangers for the NGO Paso Pacífico, which promotes biodiversity conservation initiatives in Nicaragua. The organization started hiring women as park rangers in 2009, and more women have joined their ranks since then.

Sea turtles return to the place where they were born to reproduce. They follow routes that are known to the rangers, and to the egg traffickers. El Ostional is one of many nesting spots along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast.

A few kilometers from El Ostional sits La Flor Beach, one of seven mass nesting sites for sea turtles in the world. Thousands arrive here between July and December every year to lay their eggs. In a single week, 70,000 turtles might cram onto the sand, according to Liza González, the head of Paso Pacífico.

It’s an attraction for tourists and residents, and the eggs are a treasure for those who take and sell them illegally.

“There is egg theft on all the beaches,” González says, adding that, in places without park rangers, traffickers snatch nearly all of the eggs.

“On mass nesting beaches controlled by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, the looting is estimated at 40 percent,” González says. “We succeed in protecting more than 90 percent of nests in the spots where our rangers work.”

Yajaira Vargas, a park ranger at El Ostional Beach in Nicaragua, patrolling the beaches of La Flor Wildlife Refuge on the lookout for sea turtles. Image by Monica Pelliccia.

Following the moon

The previous night, Vargas saw an olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) emerge from the water and walk around on the sand until it found a hidden spot to lay its eggs. It used its flippers to dig a hole around 50 centimeters (20 inches) deep, and then it stayed there for another 40 minutes laying 70 eggs, one after another.

Once the work was finished, the turtle covered the hole and went back to the ocean. It will never meet its hatchlings, who will be born after 45 days. At that point, they’ll have a gauntlet to run, as they try to avoid predators that hunt them from the air, such as cormorants and seagulls, as well as those in the sea, like white sharks and killer whales.

Vargas always pays attention to the sea, even when she isn’t working. She studies the phases of the moon to understand the life cycle of turtles, a rhythm she learned about during her two years as a night ranger with her colleague, Karen Lacayo.

Vargas says she loves her job. She has imparted her passion to the other members of her family, especially to her oldest daughter, 6-year-old Shanti Sofía.

“If we want to tease her, we tell her we’ll be eating turtle eggs,” Vargas says as she pulls her hair up to reveal her turtle-shaped earrings. “My daughter says that eggs need to hatch [on the beach], not in the mouth.”

Shanti Sofía is a junior ranger, and like most of the children who attend the communal school, she’s involved in the educational programs organized by Paso Pacífico.

Olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) in La Flor Wildlife Refuge. Image by Paso Pacífico.

Although nighttime is when the action takes place, the female rangers only work the daytime shift, due to concerns from Paso Pacífico and their families about their safety at night.

“When we see a huevero, we go to him and try to convince him that if he keeps stealing eggs, his children won’t ever see a turtle because they’ll be extinct,” Vargas says during a patrol on El Ostional. “Many hueveros tell me that they would like to give me their loot, but they need it because it’s their only source of income. They don’t have any other options. That’s why we try to exchange the eggs for money, incentives or vouchers that they can use to buy food in the grocery store.”

Four endangered species

Twice a month, Vargas and fellow ranger Lacayo take a boat out to monitor the turtle populations in the marine protected area. All of the area’s sea turtle species are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. The most frequently encountered is the olive ridley turtle, whose population has been nearly halved in the last three generations. The other local species are even more threatened. Numbers of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), which can weigh up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds), are down by more than 60 percent in the last three generations, and the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is almost extinct, having lost 80 percent of its population in the last three generations. Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea), however, have seen some of the biggest declines in the eastern Pacific: Their population is now less than 3 percent of what it was three generations ago, according to the “State of the World’s Sea Turtles” (SWOT) report that focuses on the problem in South America. The main threats to turtles identified in the study include incidental capture in deep-sea fishing equipment, egg theft, and the construction of hotels and other buildings near their nesting sites, which complicates the laying of eggs due to light pollution and human presence.

Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) can weigh up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds). Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Turtle eggs are a valuable commodity, especially between December and July every year, when the mass arrivals of sea turtles are still a few months away. Only occasionally will a turtle leave the ocean to lay eggs during this time.

To improve their success rate, people who steal eggs go waist-deep into the water, catch the turtles and haul them up onto the beach, carrying up to three at a time in their arms. Then they watch them while they lay their eggs, sometimes even placing a bag under the turtle so they catch every single egg.

Over the next few days, they’ll sell the eggs for $1.50 or $2 a dozen. An estimated 6,250 dozen eggs are sold every month in Nicaragua, valuing the trade at up to $13,000, according to a 2012 report by Fauna & Flora International. Most of the people interviewed for the report said they had eaten turtle eggs because it’s a typical food in Central America. It’s also thought to be healthy and have aphrodisiac powers.

The hunters usually sell the eggs in the markets of the capital, Managua, or in the city of Masaya, close to the active volcano of the same name. When the turtle nesting season is in full swing, the markets are full of eggs. Vendors display them in their kiosks, and some restaurants along the coast in Managua and León offer dishes that contain turtle eggs.

Mongabay Latam contacted Ronald Miranda Mejía, an official with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in the Department of Rivas, to ask about turtle egg theft in the eastern Pacific. He hung up the phone after hearing the question.

Turtle egg consumption and theft is illegal under a 2005 law. Penalties range from jail time of two to four years and fines of up to $10,000. In practice, however, no one stays behind bars very long for these crimes, according to locals working with Paso Pacífico.

Despite the prohibition on the trade and the threat of extinction that turtles face, egg theft is a common practice on these beaches.

Rangers Darling Delgado and Liessi Calero patrol Brasilon Beach in Nicaragua in April 2018. Image by Monica Pelliccia.

Relying on the Pacific

The ocean is at the center of life for Nicaraguans born and raised in the communities next to the turquoise waters of the Pacific, and turtles are an integral part of it. They’re a national symbol, appearing on some of the country’s banknotes.

Nicaragua is one of the worst-performing countries in the Americas on the United Nations’ human development index. The country has been mired in a deep political crisis since late April 2018, leading to massive demonstrations by students unhappy with changes to social security and other reforms. The protesters have also complained about oppression in the streets and demanded the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. More than 250 people have died and 1,800 injured during the protests and subsequent crackdowns, as reported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Amid this political strife and lack of employment opportunities, families in the region have had to rely on the sea for survival, even when that means trafficking turtle eggs. All of the female rangers know of neighbors, relatives and friends who steal turtle eggs. Many of the rangers themselves did the same in the past.

“My mother-in-law used to be a huevera. She started stealing eggs to settle debts she had contracted when she was sick,” says Liessi Calero, a 29-year-old park ranger who has patrolled Brasilon Beach for two years. “The police arrested her when she was coming back by bus from taking eggs with other women, and she spent a month in prison. When she was released, she stopped doing it.”

Every day at dawn, Calero and fellow ranger Darling Delgado put on their blue uniforms and go to work. They used to spend the day doing house chores and taking care of their families. Now they walk to the main street and wait to hitch a ride or take the first bus to Brasilon Beach, 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) from El Coco, where they live. El Coco is a village of 200 inhabitants on the road to touristy San Juan del Sur, a renowned surf mecca. It’s also a place where the extraction of turtle eggs is a practice that goes back generations.

Yajaira Vargas and Karen Lacayo in the El Ostional nursery where they work daily. Image by Monica Pelliccia.

At 6:30 a.m., they arrive at Brasilon, a white-sand beach where pelicans soar above long waves beyond the break, ending their horizontal flight to dive into the water for fish. Calero and Delgado watch the beach to prevent the theft of the eggs laid by the turtles during the night.

“We start the day by revising the notes that the night rangers left for us, where we can see the turtles that arrived during the previous night,” Delgado says. “We locate the nests and move [the eggs from] the ones that could be in danger to the nursery under this tree. We tag each of the points where we bury the eggs to indicate the hatching date.”

Each hatching is a big event for the rangers. For many, it’s the best part of their job. Once the baby turtles hatch, the rangers, accompanied by their children, wait until the evening to release the baby turtles, when there are fewer hungry predators in the sky and the sea. They also clean up the plastic waste brought in by the tide because it makes nesting more complicated. The trash is yet another obstacle that the little turtles have to contend with in their struggle to survive.

“We are the only organization that employs women rangers in the country, which is rare throughout Latin America,” Paso Pacífico’s Liza González says. “They have shown clear leadership: They used to be housewives, and now they play a very important role for the livelihood of their families and for the conservation of the environment.”

The hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), famous for its colorful shell, is almost extinct. Its population has decreased by 80 percent in the last three generations. Image by Corpoturismo.

‘I used to steal eggs. Now I’m a park ranger’

The sun is at its highest point above Brasilon Beach. It’s 1 p.m., and Calero and Delgado must get back home and leave their spot to the evening park ranger, Félix Pedro Reyes, who will work until 6 a.m., checking each of the lights that appear on these beaches at night.

“I was born in a community of hueveros. I was raised in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve lived by the sea my entire life. The Pacific has always responded to all our needs,” Reyes says. “I became a huevero at 9 years old with my group of friends. We used to sell the eggs to international traders. I was the leader of the gang. Back then, I didn’t understand what I was doing.”

For many years, Reyes used to go out to steal eggs every night. But a revolution engulfed Nicaragua in the late 1970s, and at 13 years old, Reyes went to fight with the insurgent Sandinista National Liberation Front. More than five years passed before he could return to his home and his ocean. By then, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it would be years before he could live a normal life again. Every night, he would hunt for turtle eggs the same way he now guards their nests.

“I used to take everything there was on these beaches, until one night, after stealing the eggs of five green turtles that had come to La Flor, I realized that people were doing the same on the neighboring beach,” Reyes says. “I started thinking that we were exhausting our natural resources and that if we continued, the future generations wouldn’t know about turtles.”

Maura Antonia Martínez had a similar epiphany.

“When I was 18, I ate and stole eggs to help my family’s economy. I didn’t understand the damages we were inflicting upon our environment,” Martínez says. “Now I have the chance to feel useful, not only at home. I work to achieve equality and take care of nature.”

A single mother of 10 children, today she proudly sees herself as the head of her household, where some of her 28 grandchildren run and play.

“I’m the boss here!” says the 56-year-old one day after returning from her job at the nursery at El Coco Beach.

In the yard, one of her grandchildren is playing with another child, who is chasing a butterfly with a stick. When they see what’s happening, her grandchildren tell Martinez that the child is hurting the butterfly.

“He is the son of a huevera. I’m taking care of him because his mother is in San Jorge Prison. She was arrested for stealing eggs,” Martínez says. “She is a single mother who has no one to care for her children.”

Martínez approaches the boy and tries to explain to him how important it is to protect nature and to care for the Pacific Ocean, which is part of who they are.

A panoramic view of part of La Flor Wildlife Refuge. Image by Paso Pacífico.
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