The day Jairo Mora Sandoval was killed was not the first time he had stared down the barrel of a gun. Since 2012, the poachers of Moín Beach on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast have become increasingly aggressive, according to local volunteers with Mora’s program.
Threats and violent conflicts between conservationists and turtle egg poachers stretch back decades in Costa Rica, where turtle eggs sell on the black market for about $1 each. The supposed aphrodisiacs are in high demand in rural town bars, allowing poachers to make fast money from raiding turtle nests, which can hold as many as 200 eggs.
Since the inception of Mora’s program – Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) – it has received threats, said Director Didiher Chacón. Mora’s first warning came at the beginning of last season.
“He was held up at gunpoint, and they told him to back off and stop the walks,” said Vanessa Lizano, the head of a nearby rescue center who frequently walked the beaches with Mora. “That was his first warning, and I guess his last.”
Mora’s body was found early Friday morning on Moín Beach, where he had been on patrol with four volunteers. The group was kidnapped by at least five masked men, and the volunteers were dropped at an abandoned house. Mora was taken outside, tortured and left to die.
Could the death have been prevented? Fellow conservationists are saying yes.
The first incident that raised alarm bells took place April 26, 2012, when poachers raided a hatchery where volunteers were reburying turtle nests. “The volunteers were there at night taking care of the hatchery and were attacked by poachers,” Lizano said. “They tied up the volunteers and stole all of the eggs. Jairo was the one who finally found them.”
Though Lizano and Mora had sent a number of requests to police in the past, it was the hatchery robbery that finally convinced them to get involved. After that, armed police officers accompanied the night patrols, but not even police could curb the threats.
“During that time in 2012, both Jairo and I were being followed by motorbikes with guys carrying AK-47s,” Lizano said. “They would go into town and show off the guns just to scare us.”
Toward the end of the season, Lizano received a threat along with pictures of her young son. With her family in danger, Lizano was forced to leave her job as a volunteer coordinator for the Moín sea turtle program and relocate to San José. Despite the threats, she continued working at the rescue center and would return to Limón on weekends to walk the beaches with Mora.
When turtle egg-laying season started in April, Lizano assumed that the guarded night patrols would continue. She was wrong. According to Erick Calderón, the Limón chief of police, the 18-kilometer beach is guarded four days a week, but police are not in charge of overseeing conservation patrols.
“I really was expecting that help again this year,” Lizano said. “The poachers were able to completely take control of the beach because of a lack of police force.”
It’s not that the police were ignoring poaching entirely. According to the daily La Nación, the Limón police department interviewed nine people identified by patrols Thursday night before Mora’s murder. Police have turned over the interviews to the Judicial Investigation Police to help in the investigation.
Meanwhile, government officials and outraged environmentalists have taken to social media to express their grief. The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica called the slaying “senseless” on its Facebook page, and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla called for swift justice by authorities via Twitter. Other turtle conservationists started a petition calling for immediate justice and increased police involvement in sea turtle projects.
“Jairo Mora had to die so that the authorities would pay attention,” said Twitter user Arturo Rodríguez. “And we are the happiest country in the world? I don’t think so.”
On Monday, conservation groups announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators.
“Jairo’s murderers must be brought to justice so that sea turtle activists around Costa Rica and the world know that this will never be tolerated,” said Todd Steiner, a wildlife biologist and executive director of SeaTurtles.org. “The whole world is watching to make sure the Costa Rican government brings these thugs to justice and makes sea turtle nesting beaches safe for conservationists to do their work.”
Anyone with information on the crime can email PorJairoMoraSandoval@gmail.com or call +(506) 2236-0947.
And also on Monday, a U.N. representative in Costa Rica sent condolences to the family, saying, “The United Nations sends its sincerest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of (Mora Sandoval), and recognizes his noble work on behalf of protecting turtles which are an essential part of Costa Rica's and the world's biodiversity.” Yoriko Yasukawa, who sent the statement, is Costa Rica’s U.N. resident coordinator.
Poaching, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project said, is a leading factor in the critical drop of sea turtle populations, driving them to extinction. As a result, sea turtles, including leatherbacks, which Mora was protecting when he was killed, are protected by several laws, including Costa Rica’s Marine Turtle Population Law of 2002 and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Sea turtle monitoring is crucial to enforcing those laws, the group said.
Since the murder, WIDECAST has had several large volunteer groups pull out of other programs, leaving the organization with a deficit of 200 volunteers across the country, Chacón said. As for Moín, the program is now closed.
But at least one person plans to continue the fight: Lizano is refusing to give up on the beach that she and Mora one day envisioned as a protected area. She is currently in negotiations with police for an armed escort during her weekend patrols, but even if she does not get one she says she will continue to lobby for official protection at Moín.
“If we forget about this beach, then Jairo died for nothing,” she said. “I can’t let that happen.”
For more details on the murder visit The Tico Time's original story. Updated at 10:36 p.m. on Monday. AFP contributed.