Protecting sea turtles in Nicaragua

Issue 

By Petra Roith

[The Nicaraguan Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (Marena) launched a campaign in 1993 to protect the sea turtle, an endangered species. The program's actions are focused on the dry tropical forests of Chacocente, in the department of Carazo, and La Flor, in the southern department of Rivas. Between the months of July and January, thousands of turtles migrate to the beaches lining these two forests in order to lay their eggs. Marena, in conjunction with the Sandinista Popular Army, protects this area from predators during the closed season. This article is abridged from Barricada Internacional.]

Besides guarding the nests, Marena helps the newborn turtles reach the sea and carries out studies on the living habits of these prehistoric reptiles.

During the breeding period, the bulky female turtles journey from far out at sea to the beaches, in search of an adequate place to dig their nests, sometimes up to 50 cm deep. They usually lay between 80 and 120 eggs, and cover the nests with sand.

Dogs, coyotes and jackals dig up the nests in search of the eggs, which are the size of a ping-pong ball.

After 40 to 50 days, the baby turtles hatch and crawl to the sea. Pelicans stalk them as they crawl on the beach and dive after them in the shallow waters. The baby turtles' delicate bodies are also easy prey for fish. Only a few of them live to reproduce.

Their worst enemy, however, is people's poverty. According to biologist Gustavo Ruiz of the Earth Institute, the inhabitants of this region have always made their living by collecting turtle eggs. In the past, he says, this has not endangered the turtles' existence. "In fact, a controlled egg collection can aid the balance of nature", said Ruiz.

The biologist explained that on nights during the closed season it is common to see 500 turtles laying their eggs along the beach. Many dig in places where others have already laid their eggs, cracking some of them. In these cases, the heat and humidity generate bacteria in the cracked eggs, which kill the remaining good eggs.

The main problem is that in the last few years the trade in turtle eggs has increased dramatically. Acute poverty and profit-hungry business people have pushed fishermen to over-exploit the natural resources.

Illegal companies bypass the legal channels and export their product to neighbouring countries like Honduras and El Salvador. To make things worse, Central Americans hold the popular belief that this food increases men's sex drive.

Marena began its preservation campaign 10 years ago, but its actions were too radical. It completely blocked off the Chacocente beach during the six-month closed season. This exacerbated the situation of residents, who lost one of their main means of survival.

The conditions in this region do not allow for ranching and farming. Maria Eugenia Kraudie, a Marena official, told how the inhabitants of Chacocente once violently entered the beach, despite the presence of park rangers, and dug up large stretches of sand. They took all the eggs.

Last year, Marena changed its notion of environmental protection and began to hold seminars with the residents living on the reserve in order to explain the importance of protecting natural resources and teach them that the environment is crucial for their own survival, said Kraudie.

The ministry seems to have understood that it needs to involve the inhabitants in its programs to be successful.

Also, residents in the reserve are allotted a certain number of eggs, even during the closed period. "This alleviates the situation and people are satisfied. We're also teaching them how to raise non-traditional animals like iguanas and deer", said Kraudie. She lamented, however, "that the government doesn't give credit for these projects, since it says it doesn't have money".

"Before we simply established a ban. But what can we say to residents when they ask us how they can survive? It's completely false that the environment can be protected without resources. Without money, we can't offer an alternative to the sale of turtle eggs", said Kraudie.

Environmental protection in developing countries is greatly hampered by the lack of funds. The question remains: why is there not more aid from industrialised countries?

In fact, international lending institutions force the governments in developing countries to reduce spending. Faced with this situation, officials cut back on the programs that are considered unproductive and that do not generate short-term income.

Apparently this is why the government reduced Marena's budget for 1994 by 30%. According to Kraudie, some 200 ministry workers were laid off, and there were program cutbacks.

Unemployment, hunger and poverty are on the rise in Nicaragua, and environmental protection seems to be one of the least important concerns.

In February more than 3000 newly unemployed people swarmed onto La Flor, the second largest preserve for sea turtles, killing more than 1500 of these animals. After cutting open their bellies, they extracted the eggs.

Each dead turtle was worth about US$4 in eggs. Although this activity cannot be justified, neither can extreme poverty. These people have turned to vandalism because of their hunger and the government's lack of sensitivity.

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