I will PAY you to NOT steal sea turtle eggs

Environmentally speaking, is it acceptable to pay a land owner not to cut down his forests, to pay a company not to dump its waste water into the river, to pay a poacher not to steal sea turtle eggs?

Mark Ward, founder of Sea Turtles Forever (STF) an Oregon based non-profit whose sea turtle conservation work includes actively patrolling the Punta Pargos nesting beaches on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, offers poachers cold cash to not dig up turtle nests.  And if the hatchlings successfully emerge from their eggs at the end of their 45 day gestation period, the poachers get paid for their work.

Ward (left) speaks with a poacher and family (notice bag of stolen eggs)

“I offer 10,000 colones ($20) to key poachers to secure green, hawksbill, and leatherback sea turtle nests,” says Ward as he hustles down another pristine beach at dawn.  “All these guys are super stoked to have work in hatchling production, super proud of their hatches now”, he continues, “and their whole families and friends are getting stoked on the idea. It has deterred a lot of their friends from poaching too”.

To comprehend the situation Ward is dealing with in Punta Pargos, it’s important to first understand the socio-economic woes that plague rural, coastal villages in Costa Rica.  Local communities made up of artisanal fishermen often struggle to feed their children and grandchildren because of the overexploitation of fisheries stocks.  The beaches after nightfall around Punta Pargos can be a rough place as poachers are a common site, walking the sands in search of turtle tracks.

A sharp contrast to this hardship is the arrival of tourists who spend a few weeks in paradise looking after the turtles as if they own some stock in them.  Last nesting season a belligerent poacher hit a conservation volunteer in the shoulder with a rock after a verbal argument ensued over who had the right to a nest full of freshly laid eggs.

In the face of this stark reality, Ward believes that the real stewards of this country’s marine fauna should be the Costa Rican men, women, and children who live out their days on these beaches.  What amounts to paying poor people to take care of the sea turtles is Ward’s attempt to spread the wealth and at the same time save these animals.

Ward refers to his methodology as the “bonus program” and describes it thusly:


Arnoldo is my champion down South at Honda.  I’ve worked with him for two years and he has really bloomed this season with 14 Green nests secured when I left.  We have him on the nest bonus program and he is really taking a lot of pride in his work. When I met Arnoldo three years ago he had a fridge full of illegal eggs and was offering them to the neighbors.  At about 20 cents an egg, he is literally locking down the stretch of beach in front of his house.  He now is telling other “hueveros” (egg poachers) not to poach his stretch of beach where all the Greens are because it is his job to produce hatchlings now. He has cleared out a lot of the poachers just this way.

But things haven’t always gone so smoothly for STF’s bonus program.

Olanijn—this is our operative in Lagarto, who has turned a new page in conservation in one of the most secluded and lawless areas where few outsiders venture.  Olanijn is older and very knowledgeable about the turtles and where they forage and how many there are and where they are nesting. We put Olanijn on the nest bonus program, and he has 8 Green nests to his credit at Lagarto where no nest hatched for decades due to illegal harvest. Olanijn told us he had maybe seen three or four hatches in his life-time at that location.  But when we exhumed one of his nests, we found that half of it was gone—33 eggs total.  Olanijn realized at that moment how closely I monitor the eggs and guaranteed me that would never happen again. See how close you have to monitor this program?  He took the eggs and thought I would never know. I busted him on it and told Olanijn I would only pay 5K for nests half eaten.

Ward and Olanijn exhume a hatched nest

For this reason it’s necessary for Ward and his staff to exhume and measure several eggs from each nest claimed on the bonus program to ensure that some are not taken.

Sea turtle conservationists have been quick to criticize the bonus program.  Ward’s strategy has been called unsustainable because if the money runs out, the hueveros will return to stealing eggs.  Some battle tested environmentalists believe the program allows poachers to hold nests for ransom until he pulls into their yards with 10K more colones.

But Ward stands by his program and defends it thusly, “At some point they (poachers) are so hungry and tired that they will sell their beachfront properties to the developers who comes by with a briefcase full of cash just to end the misery of trying to feed their families with nothing. This is a terrible option for Costa Rica, and a terrible option for these artisanal fishing families. Maybe by offering them a partnership and 20 cents an egg, the situation will stabilize just a little for them.  Maybe they can take extreme pride in the fact that they have a job working in conservation”.

Whether Ward’s program is ingenious or appalling, there is no doubting his unwavering enthusiasm for sea turtle protection and the local community’s involvement in this process.  He’s willing to try anything, and he stands by his technique.  “We are replacing that need to eat the eggs with a job—my ultimate goal accomplished”, he says.  And that just might help save sea turtles—forever.

14 Responses to “I will PAY you to NOT steal sea turtle eggs”
  1. Marc W. ward says:

    These artisinal fishermen that may have had a history of handleing eggs in the past are now acting as my personal assistants. Due to the fact that nesting is sporadic in some of these isolated areas it is simply more functional to pay them by the nest for the work they must accomplish to secure those nests at night. You have to consider conditions on the ground before making any negative assumptions connected with paying to stop an illegal act. You can look at it as ” we are paying them not to take the nests” — or ” We are paying them to help us manage the nests”.

    The option is either fully commandeering the area, or allowing the eggs to be harvested, both of which options are much more costly in the long run. You also have to consider that with the legal harvest at Ostional there are scores of proffessional egg harvesters running around out of work, stealing eggs for the black market, which also pays cash for the eggs. we not only secure the eggs but we also deny the black market the eggs and therefor drive the price for legal eggs up which is also a benefit to the overall situation.
    I absolutely love being able to create work for people who live with the turtles so they do not need to eat the eggs for sustanence. I have never felt so successful in my 8 years directing operations in the area as I do now that I have brought all the stakeholders together with a shared goal of hatching out as many endangered marine turtles as we can — together. The compensation we pay my assistants is pennies on the dollar compared to what conventional efforts would cost with excellent results.
    It really is about livelyhoods, WWF put it well in their publications. I do not know what it costs to put out such extravegant publications but I would imagine it costs allot more than running an interactive conservation management strategy like the Nest Bonus Program. This Bonus Program creates a livelyhood for the people who need it most, not allot of money but enough to help feed their hungry families so they do not have to resort to illegal harvest of wildlife. It also builds solidarity among those who live with the turtles and the project trying to protect them.
    We are talking about a place where the local police come out to hunt for endangered marine turtle eggs, and the kids in school tell us they are still served turtle meat. Just getting these people to talk openly took years, and now we have bridged the gap and are hatching out thousands of endangered marine turtles in and area 99% illegally harvested last year.
    Controversial approach maybe, but very effective and economical.

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      Thanks for your comments Marc. I would like to add the follow stats because they make a good argument for your bonus program from an economical point of view (and should have been included in the original piece):

      40 Green nests secured with the bonus program this year–for about $700. The other 100 nests cost STF $30,000 the conventional way.

      –just something more for all you turtle lovers to chew on.

      • Marc Ward says:

        We are still running patrols but things are winding down for the season. I won’t have the final numbers until June but I did check the financial reports from the project and got a better idea of how the numbers sit. We had trained technicians we have to pay $30 per day when they go into the ultra-secluded areas and spear-head this Nest Bonus operation. We planted two technicians in the area camping in the most active Leatherback site and bringing an overt presence to the program. These guys are experienced, hardened field technicians and so this is the more expensive part of that program. We actually spent $2400 on the nest bonus program so far and did secure 40+ Chelonia Mydas nests, that would be approximately $60 per nest, with approximately $500 to administer the program it would put the cost of each nests at $72.50US. Our normal patrol secured 110 Chelonia Mydas nests with a budget of approximately $26,000 or $236.36 per nest. However — improtant factor is that this also covered 7 marine conservation presentations in the area including books and art supplies for EVERY child in the area.

        $236.36 per nest = conventional patrols
        $72.50 per nest = Nest Bonus Program

        I just wanted to get a reality check on the actual costs — becasue I had not calculated the techs into the bottom line, and also excluded the educational program that went with that budget.

        You have to consider that this is in a place where my bonus program participants are asking me ” What do we do about the police stealing eggs?” And when my trained techs went out the first week they had up to 20 poachers working the area with them at night. After two nights a poacher walked up to our patrolling technicians with a warm cooked egg, and asked them if they were hungry. They just have no concept of marine turtle conservation in the area until we arrived. It is very complicated to work efficiently and successfully in this type of area but we have managed to find a socially acceptable option that brings everyone together instead of drawing lines of conflict.

        You also have to consider we did lose approximately 10-20% recovery on the nests secured through the bonus program due to the fact that those nests were mostly In-Situ and we have lower recovery on In-Situ nests than nests we relocate with our trained technicians. We also have a time lapse for training the bonus program participants to collect data, therefor we do lose the quality of data on those nests, compared to data that we get on nests handled by our trained technicians. So it is a building stage as all endeavors go through, maybe we can reasonably train artisanal fishermen in 3-4 years to take data close to our standard, but we will always need to have trained technicians monitoring the process. This program is definately a work in progress that needs fine tuning, time and commitment to perfect. But as for 2010 we can pretty much claim success if you look at the hatchling numbers that went out.

        The bottom line is that we did hatch thousands of Chelonia Mydas into the Ocean that would have otherwise been eaten long before they had a chance to hatch. Sometimes you just have to do what gets the job done and not be to fucused on philosophical questions about how that comes about. I have heard of other programs similar to this but maybe in a different package, the fact is that artisanal fishermen should have some benefit from marine turtle conservation and they are many times overlooked. I know how easy it is for an artisanal fisherman to grab a turtle out of the water if they want to, they are our best partners in conservation and we really need to include them in these projects we drop in all over the world. I know other groups are working with artisanal fishermen and it is the best strategy for long-term sustainability of marine turtles.

        The Tico Times reported on the Caribean in 2009 and how turtles were being butchered on the beach, and the conservation patrols were stealing eggs, and they actually arrested someone with thousands and thousands of eggs. This is in a place where they have a million dollar budget for marine turtle conservation —– what is going on? My enterpretation suggests that what we spend on our budget as compared to the Carib is like Minnows compared to Blue Whales, but we are getting results that comparably far outreach the investments we have had to make into our Nest Bonus Program on the West Coast, and hatching out turtles. The many dynamics coming into play on the program are hard to sort out when you just get a look at the surface — and the story headline. You have to have been there for years to really feel the repercussions and if they are positive or negative, and if the tactic is working. So far it is working pretty damn good, and after 11 years in the area I am a qualified authority of how all the dynamics are playing out, and where we need to focus resources for best bottom line results.

  2. Pumpy says:

    Oh dear, seems such a shame that I cannot do something. I admire you people, and all others who do work for all the poor wild life out there being exploited.
    God Bless.

    • Andy Bystrom says:

      You can ALWAYS do SOMETHING. Sea turtles confuse plastic bags and other bits of junk for food. Reducing your consumption of these materials will reduce the likelihood that animals will die from the ingestion of plastics.

      This morning I was in a meeting with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the top conservationists in the country. During the meeting we were served coffee and sweet confections. I wanted to have some cookies until I noticed that they came individually wrapped, 4 to a plastic package. I restrained knowing that I didn’t really need to eat a bunch of cookies at 9 in the morning. After the meeting was finished I looked around and saw piles of trash in front of many of the attendees: plastic stirring straws, plastic coffee creamer packages, plastic cookie packages, paper napkins, paper water cups. All of this waste takes energy to make. By using this stuff we’re contributing to the contamination of the planet. Until we find a way to make stuff and dispose of stuff in an environmentally friendly way, the one sure way to lessen our impact is to consume less. It’s a sacrifice that everyone can make.

      Go to lunch with your friends and show them by the end of it how little trash you generated. Buy a reusable water bottle and not a new bottle every time your thirsty, and get your friends to do the same. Slash your plastic bag consumption. Once your comfortable with these slight cut backs, then take things to the next level. That’s when you know your doing something for the planet even when your not out running around with the sea turtles!!

      • Marc W. ward says:

        That is so true Andy — it really bothers me sometimes too how desensitized modern society is to their consumtion frenzy. It is simple logic that while we are consuming more products than we really need and double wrapping it all in plastic, we are consuming our planetary ecology in the process. I always try to be aware of this but am programmed to not notice, if we all could focus on using less we would for sure have more. It is easy to focus on having less when you can’t afford more ” stuff”, but it is not as easy when the world is at your finger-tips to be conservative and aware of the packaging you are using. I studied land-fills in college a bit, amazing amount of ” stuff” we use, not a sustainable society at this point but maybe we will work it out eh?
        Plastic does kill a large amount of wildlife every year, that is well documented, but the public does not see it happening so the first step is awareness.

        Thanks for letting my little story be a part of your blog.

      • Andy Bystrom says:

        Marc did you get to read the post “The big plastic problem”? I took all the science from the plastic reports you sent me. Scary stuff we’re pumping into the turtle’s oceans.

    • Marc W. ward says:

      Yo Pumpy, How did you find the story out here on page 7?

      Thank- you for your kind and understanding reponse, it is sometimes really difficult to understand what we are doing on a broad scope, standing a line between unregulated harvest and conservation. The social impact is often overlooked and poorly dealt with, when actually social dynamics are sometimes the most important factor to long-term success in sustainable management.

      You are doing something by educating yourself to the turtles and the overall situation which is allot to accomplish as is, so keep that path going and you will ultimately help the turtles someday,somehow.

  3. Rob Weiss says:

    The sea turtle nest bonus program is such a postive way for local Costa Ricans to earn well deserved money and help conserve endangered sea turtles in the process.

  4. Hammer says:

    This is a fantastic project. I am very impressed with the innovative idea of giving back to Costa Rican’s who want to help in the preservation of marine turtles.

  5. jim says:

    so i got these photos yesterday from an old friend, so then i looked this egg problem up, so whats really going on are they doing this to help or not, makes some since they protect them, and not, but is there goverment trying to help repopulate them or not,

  6. Marc W Ward says:

    The egg salesman pictured talking to Marc was busted in 2012 for possession of illegally harvest eggs. He has always lied to me, I know that now — the truth always reveals itself eventually.

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