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Indigenous Comcáac turtle group saves sea turtles in Mexico’s Gulf of California

  • The Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac, the Sea Turtle Group of the Comcáac people, in El Desemboque de los Seris is fighting to increase the population of sea turtles, a sacred animal, in the Gulf of California.
  • In the past five years they have managed to release more than 8,000 olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) hatchlings along 14 kilometers (9 miles) of the Mancha Blanca and El Faro beach.
  • State funding for the project is limited, however the turtle rescue group does not see this as a stumbling block, at times working 12 hour shifts to guard turtles, monitor the area and manage logistics.

Mayra Estrella’s father always spoke to her about sea turtles. Growing up, she remembers hearing stories linking a pair of turtles to the very existence of the Comcáac people, the Indigenous people of which she and her father belong.

“We are connected to them in some way,” says Mayra Estrella, alluding to her ancestors’ worldview. “We are more tied to the leatherback sea turtle, but we are also connected to the green sea turtle, which, according to our stories, formed the Earth.”

Mayra Estrella is now 39 years old and has dedicated 23 years to working with these reptiles or marine chelonians, earning her the affectionate name “turtle mom” among her colleagues and the people in her community of El Desemboque de los Seris – or Haxöl Iihom, its original name in cmiique iitom, the language of the Comcáac people. She earned her nickname after others saw the love she has for the little animals that leave the nesting pen in the turtle camp located between the desert and the sea in the municipality of Pitiquito, Sonora, in northwestern Mexico.

Mayra Estrella, the “turtle mom” of El Desemboque de los Seris. Photo by Gerardo López.

This camp was created to ensure the survival of turtles in oceans, not only because they are seriously threatened, but also because of what they represent for the Comcáac people. Because of this, Mayra Estrella and a group of 20 others in her community, including family and friends, are working to protect female turtles and their nests along the beaches of their ancestral territory. Their aim is to increase the number of hatchlings and enable to continuity of this species.

“When I see them go to sea, I cry; it happens to me every day,” says Estrella.

In the last five years she has witnessed a growth in the number of nests and hatchlings released, with more than 8,000 olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) released into the waters of the Gulf of California. By the end of November 2021, this figure is estimated to be 11,000 hatchlings.

The leatherback sea turtle: the Comcáac people’s brother

“My dad loved to tell me stories, songs and tales about our ancestors,” Estrella adds. “He told me that the leatherback sea turtle [Dermochelys coriacea], was a man before becoming a turtle; a person just like us who felt pain, heat and hunger.”

More than a sacred animal, the leatherback turtle – a species that can grow up to 2 meters long and weigh up to 900 kilograms – is considered a brother to the Comcáac people. In their ancestral story, the turtle was a ciimque like Estrella, meaning a member of the tribe.

However, he was mistreated and scorned and decided to go into the sea. There, he became a black reptile with seven long stripes along his body from head to tail. Four days after his disappearance into the water, he returned as an animal. His father, who was a powerful shaman, knew immediately that the turtle was his son, even though his son could no longer speak.

Members of El Desemboque de los Seris community perform a ceremony for a leatherback sea turtle shell found in 2011. Photo courtesy of Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac.

“That’s why we have four days of celebrations every time there is a sighting of a leatherback sea turtle on the beach; it reconnects us,” says the leader of the Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac. “In our tradition, we decorate the turtle with blue, red and white paint – the colors of our flag – in the shape of zigzags.

“We used to keep the turtle for four days, but we don’t do that now as we would get into trouble; our tradition would clash with Mexican law.”

It has been several years since the community has seen a leatherback sea turtle in the area. A few years before the last sighting, in 2011, they found an empty shell on which they performed the ceremony.

According to records of the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegida (National Commission for Protected Natural Areas – CONANP) of the Mexican government, the leatherback sea turtle is one of the most endangered turtles in the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies it as critically endangered. The Mexican Official Norm NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010 categorizes the species as endangered. And the turtle is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

“Sea turtles are responsible for the ocean’s health,” says Estrella. “They also help maintain the ecosystem’s balance, keeping the sea clean and clear. That’s why we must protect them and avoid consuming their eggs: their protection and conservation falls on all of us.”

An olive ridley sea turtle hatchling born in Comcáac territory. Photo courtesy of Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac.

Working with limited resources

While waiting for a leatherback sea turtle to return, Mayra Estrella takes care of the rest of the turtles that come lay their eggs along 11 kilometers (7 miles) of the Mancha Blanca beach and 3 (2 miles) of the El Faro beach. At night, when the female turtles finish laying their eggs and return to the sea, the turtle team collects and takes them to the camp to protect them from coyotes (Canis latrans), their natural predators in the desert.

Their workdays last up to 12 hours: beginning at 5 p.m. when they start preparing the quadbikes, radios and rest of the equipment, and ending at until 5 a.m. when they finish guarding the eggs.

Although the turtle catchers of the Comcáac people, who are referred to as turtle guardians, have completed courses and training run by the government and organizations, they began their conservation work as a self-taught and self-managed group.

“One day, they started watching YouTube tutorials and now they know how to operate a drone and monitor the area,” says Estrella.

Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac conducts drone monitoring of the Mancha Blanca and El Faro beaches. Photo by Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac.

Over time, they began receiving funding from the state during the nesting seasons. However, Mayra Estrella maintains that “the work achieves more than the resources because [the funds] are cut off too soon.” She explains that they are currently “working without one peso,” though this does not stop them because they love their work.

“The season starts with prospecting trips in May, but we officially start working in mid-July and finish in mid-October. Then we continue with releases until November, but our resources run out in September,” says Estrella.

Germán Barrera works at CONANP, is an analyst of protected natural areas and the technical manager of the Comcáac turtle project, where he serves as liaison between the indigenous community and CONANP. He notes that despite the resources running out early – which are around $22,000 dollars, and of which 60% is used to pay wages – efforts have been made to improve conditions and manage resources when there are few.

According to Barrera, the Comcáac Nation team works hard without seeing limited funds as a stumbling block, even though the situation of the town – which depends mainly on fishing activities – is precarious.

The Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac is made up of 20 inhabitants of El Desemboque de los Seris, Sonora. Photo by Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac.

“We can only afford to pay them for 60 days, but they continue working for much longer,” says Barrera. “Between 2010 and 2011, when they were not given resources, they carried out their activities on foot. The beach is 14 kilometers long and they distributed themselves across different points to protect nests on foot.

“Since the start of the project, there has not been a single year that they have not carried out activities. Last year could have been more productive, but several team members were infected during the [COVID-19] pandemic and their quarantining affected their rounds.”

Barrera has observed a change in the Comcáac people’s relationship with sea turtles, especially the green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). Although they started off as a food source to survive life in the desert hundreds of years ago, a new awareness of the species’ conservation in the ancestral territory has now been gained. This has been promoted by Estrella and her team, and strengthened through the permanent ban imposed since 1990 by the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the environmental authority in Mexico.

An olive ridley sea turtle hatchling born in Comcáac territory. Photo courtesy of Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac.

“The impact has been very positive. I can’t say they no longer consume the caguama [sea turtle], as it’s known this is done,” explains Barrera. “But for them, as an Indigenous community, it was always a species that allowed them to persist in hostile conditions, in prolonged droughts. What’s beautiful is that when they realized the species was at risk – five different species found in the Gulf of California – they made a pact: the sea turtle had enabled them to survive the demanding conditions of the desert, so they should now let the sea turtle survive.”

Mayra Estrella wonders whether this is the same species of sea turtle that in Comcáac tradition, helped Hant Caai, the creator of the Earth, bring sand from the bottom of the sea with its fins to create everything they know.

Olive ridley hatchlings head out to sea in Comcáac territory. Photo courtesy of Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac.

On some occasions, Estrella herself has even been forced to pay money out of her own pocket to recover a turtle. Local fishers occasionally find them in their nets and sell them for less than $5 for consumption, especially in the summer when there is not much work at sea.

“I’ve had to pay for turtles several times,” she says. “Once about eight years ago, I had to buy eight turtles. I paid $97 to have them delivered to me. It was crazy, but I loved doing it. They’re people from the community, fishers, and I said, ‘I’m getting them back because I’m getting them back.’”

Mayra Estrella, leader of the Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac, observes the protected nests inside the turtle camp. Photo by Sergio Macías.

Weaving nets to save sea turtles

The Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac (Sea Turtle Group of the Comcáac Nation) belongs to the national network of the Grupo Tortuguero de las Californias (Sea Turtle Group of the Californias), for which Karen Oceguera – a marine biologist and researcher – represents more than 50 teams throughout nine Mexican states. For 12 years she has supported the process of the Comcáac turtle catchers on nesting beaches, providing training and managing permits from the environmental authority, as until 2010, they were only able to monitor different species in the water.

“We haven’t seen a leatherback sea turtle for years, but the turtles we do see and that have increased thanks to conservation efforts is the olive ridley sea turtle, which is the most common species in the entire northwestern region of Mexico and part of the Pacific,” explains Oceguera.

“According to the Mexican Official Norm NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010, the species is endangered, but in international categories it is considered vulnerable, and so is no longer endangered. I believe this is thanks to the work of many community groups over many years, such as the Comcáac in this case.”

Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac has an incubation pen measuring ten by four meters to protect the nests. Photo courtesy of Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac.

Oceguera points out that thanks to the systematic work of the Comcáac people, data have been standardized at the national level, which is helping the scientific community, CONANP and the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources – SEMARNAT) have a reliable record on sea turtles.

“It is not anecdotal, but formal,” she adds. “According to CONANP, there were between four and seven nests per season [in the Comcáac territory] 10 years ago; now we see more than 50 or 60. This was not seen before and tells the authorities that even with the little support they can give to communities, the work is paying off.”

Aerial view of the Grupo Tortuguero Comcáac hatchery. Photo by Gerardo López.

Mayra Estrella dreams of having a turtle house, a space where she can share her knowledge of sea turtle conservation with her community and visitors. That is why she conceived and formalized a project that is about to begin its first stage of construction this year with the support of CONANP.

“I will always be a turtle watcher,” she says. “My team is very capable, but I feel like no one else will do it if I’m not there. For example, no one would dare buy turtles to save them. I want to continue being their defender while life still allows me to.”

Mayra Estrella holds a pair of olive ridley hatchlings. Photo by Gerardo López.

Banner image: An olive ridley hatchling (Lepidochelys olivacea) swims in Comcáac ancestral territory, in Sonora, northwestern Mexico. Photo by Gerardo López.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at two Indigenous conservation initiatives in the United States. Listen here:

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This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on November 19, 2021.