Scientists and collaborators at a small local aquarium are looking for a way to help one of Costa Rica’s most precious endangered species.
The Caribbean SeaTurtleRehabilitationCenter in the Caribbean port city of Limón is working to fit a prosthetic fin onto a sixyear old hawksbill sea turtle named Aletita. Aletita arrived at the center almost two years ago with three missing fins – both rear fins and one front fin – after being attacked by a shark.
Gaby Hobart, a German geographer who works as a volunteer with the center for part of the year, said the facility has been working with a prosthetics center in San José to find the best way to create a new fin.
The difficulty, Hobart said, is that the turtle is still growing and will need a system that will allow the center to change the fin for a bigger one as the turtle develops.
The hawksbill sea turtle reaches adulthood between the ages of 25 and 30. If attached, the fin will need to be changed approximately three years, according to Randall Villalta, a naturalist and owner of the aquarium.
Although the turtle is missing three fins, Hobart said it is only necessary to replace one front fin to stabilize the animal and allow it to move properly.
Villalta opened the rehabilitation center in April 2007 in an effort to prevent egg theft from sea turtle nests on the beach. Since then, around 500 turtles have been brought to the center by locals and travelers.
“Illegal turtle trade is a major issue here,” he said. “People kill turtles and steal the eggs to make food and souvenirs.”
Turtle meat can be sold for ¢5,000 ($8.91) per kilogram, according to Villalta. Oil is often extracted from the body to make skin cream and the shell is molded into jewelry, all of which is prohibited by Costa Rican law.
Villalta has a permit to keep the turtles for two months, long enough for the animal to develop and be released.
Too much human exposure, Villalta said, is bad for the animal. After a prolonged period of time, the turtle might become dependent on human beings and lose certain survival instincts that are essential in its natural habitat.
Aletita’s case is a little different. Even if she receives the new front fin, she will not have the ability to survive in open waters. Villalta applied for and received a special permit which allows Aletita to remain at the center indefinitely.
The new fin for Aletita will cost approximately ¢140,000 ($250). Monthly maintenance for the female hawksbill is in the range of $200 per month. All of this adds up to money that Villalta doesn’t have. Villalta is working on applying for nonprofit association status from the government.
“If we could get support from the government, it would be wonderful,” he said.
“People would be more likely to donate to an association than they would to me.”
In spite of a lack of government support, Villalta has received some help from Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (Widecast), a non-governmental organization dedicated
to sea turtle conservation.
Widecast director and marine biologist Didiher Chacón said the organization provided Villalta’s center with tanks, medicine and other essential equipment to run a turtle aquarium.
Chacón said he supports Villalta’s idea of becoming an NGO, but thinks he needs a little more experience before he receives the status.
“You need certain skills to present proposals and work with companies,” Chacón said of being an NGO. “I think (Villalta) can do it if he works very hard.” Chacón said he will continue to work with Villalta through the process.
In the meantime, Villalta must rely on the little money he makes from selling aquarium fish as pets to sustain the center. And while the center may be emptying Villalta’s pockets faster than people can bring turtles to the aquarium, he feels that his efforts are necessary in order to change the dangerous path the turtle trade tradition has set.
“It’s something I believe in,” he said. “We need to educate people. When they see the problems these animals face, they will begin to realize the dangers of killing and selling turtles.”
Those who wish to support Villalta’s work can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 2758-5419.