Caribbean Miracle: Stolen Turtles Survive

December 18, 2009

Precisely 2,000 green turtles hatched this week on the Caribbean beach of Mondonguillo de Matina, two-and-a-half months after Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) confiscated the turtle eggs from a home in the Caribbean port town of Limón.

On Sept. 30, OIJ officials seized 11 sacks containing 10,297 green turtle eggs from a private property near the port of Moín. Many of the eggs were damaged, with mold and fungus, and biologists were doubtful that any of them could be salvaged.

The Costa Rican Coast Guard took the eggs to a nearby beach refuge where scientists built artificial nests to nurture the eggs in hopes that at least one baby turtle would hatch.

Juan Carlos Vargas, a Coast Guard biologist, called the thousands of hatchings this week “a miracle.”

“The majority of these eggs were black, infected and had bacteria and mushrooms growing on them,” Vargas said. “The life probability was 95 percent nil.”

Collecting turtle eggs, a longtime tradition in the area, is forbidden by Costa Rican law, with one exception: harvesting eggs under close supervision is allowed at Playa Ostional in the northwest province of Guanacaste.

The Law for the Protection, Conservation and Recuperation of the Marine Turtle Population (Law 8325), established in 2002 and designed to help protect declining sea turtle numbers, mandates three years of prison for anyone who “kills, hunts, captures, decapitates, or disturbs marine turtles.”

The same law also imposes jail time of from three months to two years for “those who detain marine turtles with the intention of marketing or commercializing products made from marine turtles.”

Police arrested the Limón property owner and charged him with violating Law 8325.

Along the Caribbean coast, turtle meat has traditionally been used as an ingredient in traditional dishes, and turtle shells are often carved into jewelry. The turtle protection law has seeded egg poaching as a vocation and sprouted a black market on which turtle meat can be sold for as much as ¢5,000 ($8.92) per pound.

But the 2,000 turtles hatched this week will be spared the butcher’s knife. Biologists will nurse the babies to health and return the animals to the sea.

–Mike McDonald

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