Going on midnight turtle patrol in Costa Rica

From Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation

I’m back in the United States after an amazing trip to Costa Rica. Our last group adventure took us to Manuel Antonio National Park. Relatively speaking, the area around this National Park is pretty developed, and many Costa Ricans come here for the beaches. It has had some problems in the past from pollution from the nearby towns contaminating the streams and development cutting off access for the animals. It has gotten much better, but it will only stay that way if people continue to be diligent.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park

The park has several trails that cut through the forest and end up on the beaches of the Pacific. Along the way, our group saw amazing insects like golden orb spiders, baby tarantulas, walking sticks, and huge grasshoppers. We also saw howler monkeys, crab-eating raccoons, white-tailed deer, two- and three-toed sloths, a yellow-crowned night heron, tree boa, and many black iguanas. The monkeys and raccoons have learned to steal food from the tourists on the beach, similar to the way raccoons take food from campers in our parks! If you want the comfort of an accessible park with nearby conveniences, all the while providing spectacular views and glimpses of local wildlife, this park is for you.

Bats, Howler Monkey, Heron

Lesser white lines bats, howler monkey, and yellow-crowned night heron

On Saturday I left the rest of the group at the airport and met up with one of our conservation partners for a trip to the Caribbean. Didiher Chacon, director of WIDECAST (Wider  Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network) Latin America, drove us to one of his sea turtle nesting beaches just south of Tortuguerro National Park.

This project is being run by the wonderful people of La Tortuga Feliz foundation, and Didiher has been their adviser for the past couple of years. Like many turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica, it is run by just a few staff members and relies on volunteers to do much of the work. The good ones, like this one, also actively seek support from the local community. In this case, the community employs local guides for turtle walks!

We got to the site in the late afternoon after a short boat ride from the nearest town. The staff and volunteers were all amazing, several of them deciding to stay long term after falling in love with the place and the project during their three-week volunteer stint.

Within the hour, we had discovered that one of the leatherback sea turtle nests in the hatchery was erupting and baby turtles were emerging. We helped gather them up for weights and measurements and placed them in a container for a later release. We did not want to release them in the middle of the day when the black sand was too hot and predators could easily spot them. At dusk, we went back down to the hatchery to let them go. It was a truly wonderful experience. I have participated in several nesting events, but never before witnessed this part of the process. What a sight!

After the release, I gave a presentation to the local community and project staff and volunteers on the National Aquarium’s work with sea turtles. There was no electricity at the site, so we hooked the computer and projector up to a generator for the presentation. Since there are very few sea turtle nests in our area, I mostly spoke about the work our Marine Animal Rescue Program does with rescue, rehabilitation, and release of our local species. I talked about the care our patients receive by our veterinary staff and the technologies we use for diagnosis. I talked about the time and effort our MARP staff and volunteers put in to the care of each animal and the joy of watching them be released back into their natural environment. It was easy to connect with my audience (even through the translator) because it was obvious that we were all participating in different but equally important aspects of the conservation of these amazing animals.

At midnight I joined a turtle patrol. Each night during the nesting season, local guides and project volunteers walk the beach to look for nesting turtles. In this region, it’s important to relocate all nests to the hatchery because poaching and turtle hunting is still prevalent, even though it is illegal in Costa Rica. While walking the beach, we saw a group of civil police on patrol. They were there to catch poachers. Later on, we heard that they confronted nine poachers that night and had confiscated a machete, sacks, and other poaching equipment. At first, I was comforted by the police presence on the beach, but Didiher informed me that in his two years on this project, this was only the second time he’s seen them and that they don’t have the resources to patrol regularly. In fact, their presence that evening was only made possible because La Tortuga Feliz paid for the gas for their boat.

The locals I spoke with that evening were passionate about saving these animals, but were disheartened by the continued disregard for the laws, and the inability of local law enforcement to enforce the laws. They are working very hard in their outreach efforts, for both local communities and in national campaigns, to emphasize the importance of protecting sea turtles, but as with all movements, this will take time. In the meantime, groups like WIDECAST, La Tortuga Feliz, and, most importantly, the local citizens that are working with them are providing a necessary foundation for the conservation of these species.

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