San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Turtle Poachers Beware: Volunteers on the Prowl

When the night falls and the daytimedomino games end, protecting thewildlife becomes serious business.CARIARI NATIONAL WETLAND, Limón – Foryears, the 10-kilometer stretch of the Caribbean coast fromthe mouth of the Pacuare River to Laguna Parismina couldbe considered a “poacher’s paradise” for three of the largestspecies of marine turtles in Costa Rica: The leatherback, theCaray, and the green turtle, which return to their birthplaceevery year to lay their eggs and have seen their numbers fallsignificantly in the area.Only now, the paradise is being returned to the shelledcreatures with the help of Paul Lepoutre’s “La TortugaFéliz” project volunteers and guides.La Tortuga Féliz, which is attracting interest from groupssuch as the World Wildlife Fund and other volunteer organizations,was started in April of this year by Lepoutre, aDutchman and former businessman who has lived in CostaRica for eight years.Although fishing nets and boats cause some of the area’sturtle deaths, most meet their fate at the hand of poachers.“There is no reason we should stand by and allow thesecreatures to be picked off the beaches when there are lawsprotecting them, but if we don’t do it who will,” askedLepoutre, founder of the new turtle-protection project in thearea, which is attempting to help the turtles by having itsvolunteers and area guides make a regular presence on thebeaches at night.ALTHOUGH the numbers aren’t exact, the once-abundantamounts of turtles on the beach are beginning to diminishconsiderably, according to Lepoutre.“If we see someone trying to kill a turtle, we can try andtalk them out of it,” Lepoutre said, “but when it comes to theeggs, they are pretty much gone if the poachers know wherethey are.”Since La Tortuga Feliz’s volunteers have been patrollingthe beaches at night, suddenly fewer poachers from outsideare present on the beaches at night. This is important becauseopportunistic locals aren’t likely to be as violent as outsiders,who have been known to carry weapons and travel ingroups, according to Lepoutre.“You see many people out on the beaches in the dark andthey will talk to you a little, making it seem like they are justenjoying the breeze,” said Travis Williams, one of the firstvolunteers with the program. “But when you turn your backon them, they can be on a turtle tying it up in a flash.”Williams went on to describe one night when he followeda poacher who was dragging a turtle down the beachin waist-deep water to where they usually have a wheelbarrowor a boat.EVEN though La Tortuga Feliz asks volunteers to notput themselves in danger, Williams said it is difficult to notask the poachers to spare the turtle. In this case, Williamswalked right out in the water with the poacher giving him ahard time. In fact, he gave the man such a headache, thewould-be poacher untied the turtle and let it swim away.They may not always able to save the turtles, Lepoutresaid, but area residents are getting the message that they areserious about their business and having them on their side ismaking things much better for everyone.“At first some of the locals didn’t take us seriously, butjust recently many of them that have chosen to poach insteadof work with the project, are being invited once again tochoose to work with turtles instead of killing them,”Lepoutre said.La Tortuga Feliz has hired area residents as guides aftertaking a one-week course on how to protect the turtles andtheir eggs once found on the beach. Area residents also helpbuild cabinas, clear canals to make the transport of buildingmaterials for the construction of the cabinas, which alsomakes it easier for the transporting of coconuts, which is amain source of income for the area.The guides are primarily responsible for pointing out turtletracks in the dark, spotting out nesting sites to the volunteersso they can guard them by letting their presence beknown on the beach. They are also familiar with other resi dents who may be on the beach and tend totalk to them (instead of a volunteer) if argumentserupt.SOMETIMES, appealing to the poacher’shumanity doesn’t always work. In May2004, an angler confronted two poacherswho were stealing turtle eggs near Barra deMatina and was in turn attacked by themwith a machete (TT, June 4).When the volunteers follow the guideout to the beach it is already well past dark,and because flashlights are to be used at aminimum, the darkness tends to play withthe eyes at first. The waves get wild andloud, crashing heavily close to the mouth ofa river. Walking along behind the guide thesand can dip suddenly to where earlier thetide had eaten away at theshore. The guide will alsopoint out logs and debriswith sudden bursts of lightcoming from his flashlight.After walking forabout half an hour youwill get closer to wheremotionless figures standsilent in the dark, althoughyou won’t see them untilthe guide once again pullsout his flashlight from hiship and sends a quickflash of light to illuminate these in somecases small boys and old men wearing Tshirtsand ball caps. Not knowing what toexpect and seeing these figures suddenlyappear can be a bit eerie, especially becausethe shadows hit their faces in strange lowangles from the flashlight, it resemblessomething that you would see in a fun house.In the distance, small groups of possiblepoachers gathered together can be seen – agood thing for turtle protectors as the poachersmay miss opportunities to string up turtlesbecause of your presence.BY day, volunteers can sit on the beach,help with agricultural chores or the constructionof cabinas. Other activities includehiking, horseback riding, mountain biking,fishing, and kayaking. Without televisionavailable (there is no electricity), volunteerstend to become better at dominos, which is agame taken seriously on the porch of themain house.Poaching is increasingly tempting tomembers of the small community, which istraditionally dependant on incomes fromcoconuts and fishing, with price tags reaching$300 per turtle (more than one month’spay for most residents).Lepoutre is trying combat poaching’slucrative rewards by helpingdevelop a naturereserve on this stretch ofthe Caribbean coast thatwill in turn boost the localeconomy with ecotourismand employ nearlya quarter of the amountpeople in the 45-membercommunity.Lepoutre is also planting500 Noni trees in themiddle of his property toexport an organic noni-basedfruit juice, whichwill employ another five people for long termwork.“We are excited about giving some of thelocals work while retaining the integrity ofthis place,” Lepoutre said. “We don’t want tobring in big machinery here, we want tokeep it simple and work with the naturalenvironment to generate employment forlocals and a product that we can proud of.”RECENTLY, authorities including theCoast Guard have agreed with plans to builda hatchery in the area that will help guard theturtle eggs 24 hours a day against poachers.The hatchery will begin construction inDecember. The turtle eggs, which are notsupposed to be the best tasting, are believedto possess aphrodisiac qualities and are soldon the black market along with the shellsand meat.For those wanting to volunteer, the minimumstay is six nights and there is no maximum.Be sure to bring a flashlight, batteries,hiking shoes, sun block, repellent, raingear, a hat, and some books to read.La Tortuga Feliz is located 50 metersnorth of the mouth of Pacuare River in whatcan be called The Amazon of Costa Rica, alush mangrove forest populated with rivers,canals, and lagoons that can only be reachedby boat. During the boat trip down thePacuare River toward La Tortuga Feliz youmay see howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys,any of 145 species of birds, iguanas,turtles, and maybe even a crocodile, so besure to keep your hands in the boat.The total cost of the trip is about $15.You take a bus from San Jose to Bataan, thena taxi to the river where there is a boat waiting.Volunteers pay $12.50 a night for a bedin a new and clean cabina, three solid meals,free coffee, fresh fruit juices and access to awild stretch of the Caribbean coast.For more info, visit or call Paul Lepoutre at 378-6934between noon-12:30 p.m.

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