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.
“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.
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.