Biologist Leads Community Education Project to Help Beach Residents Protect Turtles
PLAYA JUNQUILLAL, Guanacaste – Emanuel and Mainor moved like ghost crabs along Junquillal’s starlit beach, swerving effortlessly with the ebb and flow of high tide over spongy sand.
Sparks of bioluminescence tracked at their bare heels, shooting stars fired and extinguished on the distant, dark horizon, and foamy waves glittered and dissolved in starlight.With flashlights, they scanned the beach and dunes, looking for tracks, motion, or anything else that might signal the nesting activities of one of the beach’s three species of nesting sea turtles: the olive ridley, the green and the leatherback.
Emanuel Gutiérrez, 17, and Mainor Jaen, 21, together with other youths from the remote Guanacaste Pacific coast community of Junquillal, patrol the beach every night around high tide, flagging nests, counting turtles and warding off poachers.
The patrols are part of a fledgling community project initiated two years ago by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a global conservation organization, designed to educate and involve the community, and highlight the value of the turtles and their eggs alive – not on a breakfast platter or served raw in a shot glass.
Both young men come from families of recolectores, or turtle egg harvesters. They know the beach like most people know their town or city streets – and acknowledge that just a few years ago, an arribada, or nesting season, marked not just the arrival of the turtles, but also, hordes of egg harvesters who would swarm the beach and clean out most, if not all, the nests.
Today they are more likely to happen upon a teenage couple on a private patch of sand than they are a poacher, and residents of the sprouting condominium and housing projects are becoming more conscious of their effect on the turtles.
As they walked along the mostly dark, palm-fringed shores of Junquillal’s expansive beach, Emanuel pointed out one such project, Las Brisas del Mar, which sits well in view of ocean waves – and the arriving turtles.
The condominium windows were dark, despite the fact that the residents were clearly home – cars tucked neatly behind the buildings. There were no outdoor lights fronting the ocean.
“We talked with them, and the day after they dimmed the lights, the turtles began to show up on this stretch of beach again,” said Mainor, explaining that, in his many nights walking the beach, he’s found turtles far more likely to nest in dark areas like this one.
Thanks in large part to the World Wildlife Fund’s program – and the newfound pride among Junquillal residents such as Emanuel and Mainor, the percentage of eggs poached has plummeted from nearly 100% to almost zero last year, and the community is rallying to save the turtles that remain.
At a sultry, waterfront bar on Playa Junquillal, fans bounce humid, salty air off the walls, and sweat beads off Gabriel Francia’s forehead.
Francia, an Argentinean biologist who studied the turtles of Junquillal for years as part of doctoral thesis work, leads the community project for the WWF – a job he loves, but at the same, finds all-consuming.
He looks the part: half-Tarzan, half-scientist with a rich sense of humor, he lives and breathes the rhythms of the turtles that nest on the beach – rising after noon each day, eating lunch as patrons begin to fill the bar’s old wooden stools at sunset and staying up through much of the night.
“At the beginning, it was all walking the beach, working with the turtles. Now, it’s about education,” he said, adding the process was slow – as locals were understandably suspicious.
“At first, people would see me on the beach and go the other way,” he said. To many, he was an unknown, an outsider, perhaps even some kind of unwanted law enforcement official.
Despite the fact that it is among the top three leatherback turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica, the difficulties that arise in creating an oceanfront national park, as have been encountered in Las Baulas National Marine Park, farther north along the coast (TT, April 13), make a park here almost unthinkable.
That reality, said Francia, is what drove him and the World Wildlife Federation to pursue this project.
“If you help to educate the people, they will do the work of protecting the turtles.
But they have to understand the benefits, too,” Francia said.
Francia took his education program to community leaders, parents of school children, and then into the schools, holding workshops, celebrating local artistic talents, initiating a local Turtle Festival and marking each turtle nest with a sign on the beach – as a way of educating locals and tourists alike.
At the same time, the nightly patrols – staffed only by local teenagers – began. Francia, with help from this crew, then built a sea turtle hatchery, and began to transplant eggs from the beach to the shaded hatchery, where they would be protected and stand a better chance of survival.
He also posted signs on public bulletin boards, in which he notes the name, number and species of each turtle arriving on the beach during each arribada.
People watched, and slowly, grew more comfortable with Francia and the program. At the same time, turtle egg poaching began to drop markedly – a fact not lost upon many local residents.
“We’ve seen a huge change in two years.
Gabriel has gotten everyone involved, but most importantly, the kids,” said Adriana Miranda, who runs a beachfront bar that abuts the turtle egg hatchery. “Once the kids are involved, the parents are too.”
Miranda deals with tourists on a daily basis, and says that the turtle hatchery, the signs, and the activity have created a new pride in the community, and curiosity among visitors.
“Everyone asks about the turtles. It’s something they can’t see at home, but they can here. It’s what makes this beach so special,” she said.
This year marked a new and alarming trend, according to Francia: 10% of nests were poached, up from none the year before. It’s an upsurge Francia attributes to Junquillal’s sprouting human population –now almost 50% foreign, according to a recent census by one of his assistants.
On a recent tour of the town of Junquillal over deeply rutted, dust-clouded roads, Francia pointed out development after new development, shouting explanations over the rattling of a loose part in the trunk of his decrepit jeep.
“The development has really picked up in the past two years. With it, come people from outside – people with different values and traditions, who haven’t benefited from our programs. They don’t have the same understanding of the importance of the turtles,” said Francia, citing an influx of construction workers that come from regions or countries – often Nicaragua – where turtle egg harvesting, and even turtle hunting, is an accepted cultural practice, and sometimes, a necessity for survival.
The revelation is alarming when one considers leatherback sea turtle numbers at Junquillal and throughout the Pacific are plummeting, despite biologists’ efforts.
Many scientists blame global warming, and most importantly, offshore fisheries, which kill untold thousands of turtles before they ever make it to beaches like Junquillal – but increasingly easy access to once remote areas is also taking its toll.
The inevitable paved roads from booming Tamarindo, one hour to the north, will undoubtedly usher in more development and people, and thus, more poaching, he added.
In the meantime, the patrols will continue, and so will the education.
“In the end, whether the turtles survive or not, the people here have gained something more valuable.We are left with a community that cares,” Francia said.
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