There was a time when sea turtles were so common on the Pacific Coast in southern Mexico that they were a menu staple: turtle soup, turtle meat, turtle eggs. But no more. While not extinct, most of Mexico's main species, including the leatherback, the hawksbill, and the green sea turtle, have dwindled such that their eggs and meat are now illegal commodities.
Direct human predation for food is only one of many activities that have driven down the populations of these and other sea turtle species. Loss of natural habitat (i.e., development of beaches), ingestion of debris, predation by introduced species, increased major storm activity, and accidental capture by fishing vessels have all contributed to the demise of the once-plentiful turtles.
Grassroots Aid For Turtles
The first step in saving turtles is allowing their eggs (which are laid in shallow sand nests on beaches) to hatch. Turtle eggs were a huge industry before the Mexican government banned egg collecting in 1971. In 1990, they took protection efforts a quantum leap further by prohibiting the harvest of turtles themselves.
But laws are only as good as the enforcement. If the turtles are to be saved, man must shift his thinking and his practices on a grassroots level. In the 1990s, a groundswell of awareness and activity on the part of ordinary Mexican citizens has begun to reverse some of the turtle population loss. Education outreach by organizations, including Greenpeace Mexico and the National Mexican Turtle Center, have begun reaching out to children and adults to raise awareness of the turtle's perilous situation and attempt to reverse the concept of turtles as a plentiful, God-given food resource -- a long-held cultural belief.
Today, tens of thousands of Mexican citizens from all economic strata and all walks of life can be seen informally patrolling the beaches, trying to beat egg poachers at their own game. A nest of turtle eggs can be spotted by following the tracks of the mother turtle. If a self-appointed turtle saver gets there before a poacher, he or she can move the eggs to a secret location where poachers can't find them. They can also guard the eggs from predators such as dogs and raccoons.
After the Hatch ... Helping Turtles To The Sea
Once the eggs hatch, the baby turtles embark on the most dangerous journey of their young lives ... the trek from the nest to the open ocean. While the dangers of pollution, net fishing, and seagoing predators are still ahead, they are not nearly as acute as the danger of predation by birds and other animals in their exposed journey across the sand.
To assist in this next phase of the tiny turtles' lives, the turtle volunteers often hand-carry the turtles to the surf. With so many eco-minded Americans visiting Mexican beaches, some of the resorts have gotten into the act. Touting their own "Campamento Tortuguero" (Turtle Camp), these resorts offer guests the opportunity to participate in release of the tiny hatchlings under controlled conditions. No doubt some programs are exploitive in nature, more interested in the American dollar than in the survival of turtles, but others seem to be on the "up-and-up," charging nothing for guests to participate, and timing releases in the best interest of the hatchlings.
On an early morning jog on my recent visit to Acapulco, I chatted (primarily in sign language, since his English was as bad as my Spanish) with an elderly local who was releasing a few baby turtles into the sea. "They are in danger," he explained, "of becoming lunch ('la comida') to the sea birds. So I give them a little help." This man asked nothing of me and appeared pure in his intent, so while assisting the hatchlings in their journey from nest to sea might be controversial, obviously some believe it is a good thing to do.
My Own Hatchling Release
Lounging beside my hotel's inactive Turtle Camp, I asked a hotel worker why the camp was not in operation. He explained that it was dependent upon a large hatch of turtles, and none were anticipated during the week of my stay. Later in the day, however, he returned with a broad grin on his face and a bucket in which there were two tiny turtles. "A small hatch," he explained, "but they are ready for the sea." My sister and I were delighted to help them get a new start on life.
Sally O'Neal Coates is an outdoor enthusiast and turtle foster mother. She writes about hiking, bicycling, and other outdoor pursuits weekly in "Trailside with Sally O'Neal Coates" here at sportsmansguide.com.