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Turtle Patrols in Parismina, Costa Rica

Created by Janet LoSole

At sundown, winter or summer, the townsfolk of Parismina, a tiny island community wedged into a pocket between the Río Parismina and the Caribbean Sea, gather at the crossroads of two footpaths that converge at a beer stand/night club. Children play in the twilight, while adults sit on bicycles or perch on tree branches sipping cold beer. On Saturday nights, the crowd moves inside to cut a rug to the lilting sounds of Bob Marley. The rest of the week, people go to bed early, then wake before the sun rises at 5:30. The only constituents who stay up all night are the volunteers of the Asociación Salvemos las Tortugas de Parismina.

The “Let’s Save the Turtles of Parismina Association” or ASTOP, is an example of grassroots at its best. In response to the alarming reduction in the numbers of sea turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs, the community group established a committee to oversee a turtle hatchery. They recruit volunteers to stem the tide of illegal harvesting of turtle eggs and the slaughter of female turtles for soup.

At one time, villagers relied on bounty from the sea for food. Then recognizing the value of turtle meat in urban markets and touting the aphrodisiac effect of the eggs, poachers descended upon Parismina. Soon there was a marked decline in the population of nesting sea turtles. To the north, along the same canal, lies Tortuguero National Park, which shields all nesting turtles under its National Park protection status. Parismina falls just outside the park boundaries, but receives assistance from time to time from the Coast Guard in the form of armed patrols. However, most conservation efforts are achieved by ASTOP.

The success of the hatchery program can be attributed to the committee’s efforts to bring in foreigners who pump funds directly into the local economy. ASTOP’s main objective is to make it more profitable to keep the turtles alive and coming back as an attraction for visitors than to sell the coveted eggs on the black market. Volunteers register with the program for a nominal fee, which funds local guides who lead patrols along the beach at night.

Despite its listing in well-known guide books, Parismina remains under-visited, most likely due to the arduous journey to get to the island and the lack of sophisticated infrastructure. However, those willing to rough it have been rewarded with an up-close-and-personal lesson in marine biology. Visitors support the local economy and make a direct impact on a threatened species.

In San José, I boarded a bus at the Gran Terminal del Caribe. Three hours later I disembarked in Siquirres, where I witnessed the local black-market firsthand. Tricycle-wheeling, sea-turtle-egg vendors rang out, “Huevos de tortuga! HUEVOOOOOOOOOOOOOS!”

Sadly, most of these egg-sellers were old men, obviously poor, who probably had no other source of income. Technically illegal, selling endangered Green Sea Turtle eggs is just one cog in the wheel of the underground economy that leads to the heart of the problem. How do you deprive people of their right to income and survival, even if it impacts the survival of other species? In Parismina, I hoped to find the answer to that question.

At 1:30 I boarded a chicken bus that pitched and rolled over hard-packed rock through sleepy tropical backwaters until I bumped into the village of Caño Blanco. Here, I hopped on a lancha, small motor boat, for the final leg to Parismina.

I bunked at Alex’s campground, a beautiful piece of land at one end of town that consisted of four A-frame cabinas, complete with beds, fans and electricity. The campground provided clean communal cinder block showers and an open-air kitchen, where I stocked the pantry alongside a rusty, ant-infested fridge, a picnic table, a sink and a two-burner hot plate.

Since the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) lays her eggs only at night, and since most, if not all, of the poaching takes place under cover of darkness, beach patrols are staggered throughout the night, starting at 8:00 p.m. The patrol begins at the guard shack at the north end of town; the guides follow a route along the chocolate sand beach for six kilometers, all the while watching for the telltale track of the turtle: two thick black lines in the sand.

My first night out was overcast, hot and sweaty, made worse by the long sleeves and pants I wore to protect me from mosquitoes. I was no more than twenty feet from the guard shack when my guide and I came upon a young turtle in the early stages. She was already digging out the hole into which she would lay her eggs. We approached slowly from the side, then moved to stand behind her. From a position about one foot away, I observed, unnoticed by her, the process from beginning to end, which can take upwards of sixty minutes or more, depending on the turtle.

She developed a rhythm to her digging, bending one back flipper under her rear like a British curtsy. Then, she dug her pointy flipper into the sand, curled it into a spoon and flicked outward. Her head receded into her shell, and her lungs exhaled in a great whoosh. The opposite flipper repeated the motion. Bend…curtsy…flick…exhale. Bend…curtsy…flick…exhale.

Roger, one of the guides, knew precisely when the digging was complete, and the laying was about to start. He instructed me to put on rubber gloves, pull out the eggs from the hole, and place them into a shopping bag. Because we were behind the turtle, she was unaware of our stealthy evening robbery. While I was collecting the eggs, she was laying them simultaneously, plopping them into my hand before I scooped them out.

The eggs were shaped like an oversized ping-pong ball, but the shells were soft and delicate. This mama managed to lay ninety-eight eggs; probably less than 1% would make it to adulthood. We crept back to allow her to bury her “eggs” and then prepared to measure her and check her for tumors. This smallish Green Sea Turtle measured one meter from stem to stern. We watched her drag herself with difficulty back to the sea and because her track marks led right to the nesting site, we walked a few paces to bury the eggs in a more hidden spot. Then we got down on our hands and knees and swiped the sand back and forth with our arms, raking it as best we could to cover our tracks, in an attempt to foil poachers who continued to roam the shores night after night. We reserved about half of the eggs to bury in the protected sanctuary of the hatchery, which was surrounded by fencing and watched over by a member in the guard shack. Further north in Tortuguero National Park, poaching isn’t as much of a threat as everyday menaces, including crabs, birds and even ants.

The next turtle lumbered further inland, so close to us that Roger motioned for me to lie down flat on the sand so she could move or “flip” by me without becoming frightened. Again I was to scoop out the eggs, but this time, I was wrestling with low-lying scrub. She managed to untangle herself and stagger back to the sea, whereas I was prone on my stomach stretching the full length of my arm to reach the farthest eggs.

As we walked further down the beach, I learned that most guides had day jobs or were students. The hourly wage for patrolling the beach with tourists wasn’t great, but it went pretty far in a town like Parismina. Along with the extra financial incentive, the guides admitted that they patrolled the beach because they had grown up in Parismina and witnessed, for the first time in any generation, a drastic drop in the population of sea turtles.

After an hour of walking, the guides suggested we sit and rest. Roger went off to the scrub with a fellow guide to collect sea grapes, or hicaco as they are known locally—a small red fruit or berry with a sweet chalky white pulp and a hard pit. What Roger didn’t know was that while he was picking hicaco, he had been crouching over an ant mound. He sprung up out of the scrub and jiggled and spasmed his way to the water ripping off his shirt and plunging his body into the surf. We laughed as we shared the guides’ bounty, scraping hicaco pulp from the pit with our teeth.

All of a sudden, out of the darkness we could just make out two men running along the beach toward us. They cut into the bush and disappeared for a few minutes. Someone thought they looked to be armed. In the dark, it was difficult to see how far away they were.

The guides, I thought, were either very brave or very foolish. They went into the bush after them. In the confusion, made worse by the din of the surf and the overcast sky, we soon discovered they were members of the Coast Guard who had seen the guys go into the bush and bring back the sea grapes. From their vantage point, down the beach, the officers couldn’t be sure they weren’t poachers.

Over the four weeks we stayed there, we got to know the folks on the turtle project very well. Never had we met a more dedicated and knowledgeable bunch. We wound down our stay in Parismina, devoting the early mornings to witness the next logical step in the process: the hatchings. The incubation period of the various sea turtle species lasts from about forty-five to sixty days depending on the temperature of the sand. With notes in hand, guides located the concealed nests along the shore and dug them up to document how many eggs had successfully hatched, how many had fallen to predation or how many were unformed in the egg.

Guides assisted volunteers in uncovering nests, using a tape measure to determine their coordinates. They graciously stood aside to allow us the full experience: the digging, the gawking and the ooohing as the tiny turtles fluttered out of the hole.

This was a defining moment for me. It provided the answer to the gnawing question of how to justify depriving someone of a source of income to save a species. Parismina was the solution. Alter the source of revenue. As it was explained to us, some guides had formerly participated in the pilfering of turtle eggs, but now they played a part in protecting them. A smart idea. Grassroots at its best.

Author Bio:

Janet LoSole is a freelance writer living in Ontario, Canada. She earned a Bachelor of Education degree (French) from Nipissing University and TESOL certification from the Canadian Institute of English. She has taught ESL internationally since 1994. A staunch advocate of community-based tourism, Janet has made numerous presentations on the concept to community groups, encouraging people to eschew corporate package tours in favor of supporting local family-owned businesses. She writes about homeschooling and traveling. Her work has appeared in Natural Child Magazine,Vagabondfamily.org, Learning Tangent, The Homeschooler Post, Hackwriters.com and World Schooler Exchange.

September 24, 2017

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