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Video: As COVID-19 curbs patrols in Nicaragua, turtle eggs risk being poached

  • Conservation organization Paso Pacifico, which monitors Nicaragua’s Pacific beaches where thousands of threatened sea turtles lay their eggs every year, recently had to stop its activities due to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Park rangers fear that the lack of surveillance could lead to massive poaching of turtle eggs.
  • Poaching has previously increased when the country’s political crises left the beaches unprotected.

Social distancing has become part of the routine for Liessi Calero and Darling Delgado, park rangers who protect turtles in Nicaragua, the only country in Central America that has not declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19. Brasilon Beach, where turtles nest, is part of La Flor Wildlife Refuge, a marine conservation area located in the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean near the border with Costa Rica. Calero and Delgado have been patrolling the beach for years to prevent smugglers from raiding turtle nests and selling their eggs to markets and restaurants.

La Flor is one of the seven most important turtle nesting beaches in the world. During the turtle nesting season, which begins in late July, more than 70,000 turtles will lay their eggs on the beach.

But the patrols have been suspended since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Nicaragua in March, interrupting a decade of continued surveillance.

Calero and Delgado are part of the Paso Pacifico organization, which manages projects that protect biodiversity in Mesoamerica. The Nicaraguan government has not imposed quarantines, nor have work and educational activities been officially paused. However, Paso Pacifico has decided to suspend its activities to help prevent the spread of the virus, including education programs for children, patrols, and managing turtle egg nurseries.

‘Who is going to take care of the beaches and the turtles?’

“At work and at home we have adopted social distancing and hygiene measures: we disinfect surfaces with alcohol and wash our hands frequently with liquid soap,” said Delgado, who has been a park ranger for six years. Along with her colleagues, she has started sewing masks for families in her town, El Coco.

But Delgado and her colleagues have another concern.

“Now that we have stopped working, I am afraid that we are going to lose all the turtle nests and waste our previous effort,” said Yajaira Vargas, another park ranger at La Flor Wildlife Refuge. “We are very sad. Who is going to take care of the beaches and the turtles?”

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

Four sea turtle species use these beaches for their nesting grounds: the olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). All are threatened with extinction, the leatherback in particular being one the world’s most endangered sea turtles. Research published in March in the journal Nature found the leatherback could entirely disappear from of the eastern Pacific Ocean in less than 60 years if current trends continue. The study estimates around 200 adults and between 7,000 to 8,000 young could be saved if fishing activity is reduced and nests are better protected. The threats to sea turtles are legion, and include habitat loss, bycatch by the fishing industry, hunting, climate change, and light pollution.

Poaching is a year-round concern for rangers and conservationists. But August is the most critical month for turtle poaching in Central America because that’s when the majority of turtles return to the beaches where they were born to lay their eggs.

Park ranger Yajaira Vargas. Image by Monica Pelliccia.

“We are worried,” said Sarah Otterstrom, director of Paso Pacifico. “If by June we still have to take distancing measures, we won’t be able to return to the beaches. There will be no protection for the nesting turtles during the massive arrivals.”

Otterstrom says that through years of work, the organization has managed to reach a truce with the hueveros, as turtle egg traffickers are often called. “They generally respect the beach,” she said, but added that if park rangers are not present, “they could go back to poaching.” She also said that despite the advances in environmental education and the prohibition of trade and consumption of turtle eggs in Nicaragua, “the demand for turtle eggs continues and people’s economic needs will rise due to the impacts of COVID-19.”

Nicaragua has been going through a period of crisis and repression. Since April 2018, 328 people have been murdered and around 100,000 have been displaced and resettled in Costa Rica and Mexico, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The latest Global Peace Index (GPI), prepared by the Institute for Economics and Peace, warns of the deterioration of living conditions in the country due to the excessive use of force and violence by government officials.

Despite the conflict, conservation activities persisted and park rangers continued to patrol the beaches. But Yajaira Vargas says she has noticed impacts of the crisis during her patrols.

“As a result of the conflict, people who have lost their jobs have been extracting more eggs to sell in the markets and also to eat at home,” Vargas said.

Turtles arrive to lay their eggs on the beaches of La Flor Wildlife Refuge, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Image by Paso Pacifico.

Sources say local conservation organizations are facing many difficulties. According to Otterstrom, Paso Pacifico has not been able to renew its environmental research permit granted by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources as Decree 20-2017 only allows organizations that have the backing of a public university to carry out their activities in an authorized manner. Paso Pacifico is one of many organizations not affiliated with a university, which has meant reducing scientific research and conservation activities within protected areas, such as La Flor Wildlife Refuge.

Conservationists are also worried about funding reductions due to the pandemic.

“We think there might be a decrease in donations for biodiversity conservation as the world is facing economic changes due to COVID-19,” Otterstrom told Mongabay. She said Paso Pacifico’s turtle conservation program has already seen its budget reduced by 40% this year.

Nesting turtles in La Flor Wildlife Refuge, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Image by Paso Pacifico.
Yajaira Vargas, park ranger for El Ostional beach, patrols the beaches of La Flor Wildlife Refuge in search of sea turtles in April 2018. Image by Monica Pelliccia

There is precedent for conservationists’ concern about what a lack of monitoring and enforcement may mean for turtles this year. In August 2018, while the security forces were mobilized for the political conflict, La Flor was left unprotected for a month and traffickers looted some 2,000 nests and killed several turtles. Currently, the army is patrolling La Flor Wildlife Refuge. However, a scientific source who spoke on condition of anonymity told Mongabay that poaching events could happen during the health crisis if this important beach is left without official controls. The source said their concerns were realized in April, when traffickers killed a turtle to steal its eggs and then burned part of the forest.

A unique distinction

In a press release, the organization Human Rights Watch said that the Nicaraguan government under President Daniel Ortega has responded recklessly to the pandemic. Unlike other Central American countries, Nicaragua has not declared quarantines or restrictions on movement. On the contrary, in late March the government organized a massive public event called “Love in the Times of Coronavirus,” with the aim of “fighting” the pandemic. Health specialists have criticized the government’s strategy. Vice President Rosario Murillo has said those who oppose it “have sick brains who are seeking to defame.”

“After two years of conflict and now with the pandemic in Nicaragua, park rangers are beginning to feel abandoned,” Otterstrom said. “Compared to other parts of the world, they perceive that the country is not taking the appropriate measures. We wanted to make posters to promote hygiene and health activities, but the local communities told us that it was in vain because the government would stop us.”

Turtles arrive at La Flor Wildlife Refuge, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Image by Paso Pacifico.

To date, 2,846 cases of COVID-19 infection and 91 deaths have been officially recorded in Nicaragua. However, health professionals who are part of the independent monitoring group COVID-19 Citizen Observatory, say the actual number of cases and deaths are much higher. According to their counts, there were 7,402 infections and 2,087 deaths from COVID-19-related pneumonia as of late June.

Restaurants are still open across Nicaragua, and many establishments are promoting dishes that contain turtle eggs. Otterstrom says that COVID-19 has shown that human health and environmental health are intertwined. Because of this, she urges governments to prioritize the fight against trafficking and the conservation of fauna to prevent the rise of future pandemics.

“Wildlife are carriers of viruses unknown to the human body,” Otterstrom said. “Animal trafficking and deforestation open space for the consumption of animals that can transmit diseases.”
 
*Banner image by Paso Pacifico.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Spanish site on June 3, 2020.