It’s a cloud-covered night, and we’re walking briskly along Playa Los Negros, a beach that, apart from washed up driftwood and litter from the nearby mouth of the Lempa River, is practically untouched. Gio occasionally flicks on his flashlight to illuminate the way or scan the waves; most of the time, though, we walk in the dark. Our goal: to see a nesting sea turtle.
“One moment there’ll be nothing there, and the next you see a black mass coming out of the water,” Gio explains when we first start out. “Keep your eyes open.” Gio is what everyone calls Oscar Giovanny Diaz, an energetic young leader from the community of Isla Montecristo. He manages the turtle hatchery on Playa Los Negros and has been patrolling the beach alongside tortugueros (egg collectors) involved in the program almost every night this nesting season. He tells us that lately, they’ve had up to 20 Olive Ridley turtles nest on this five-kilometer stretch of beach each night.
September, October, and November represent the high season for nesting Olive Ridley turtles in El Salvador. Four of the world’s seven sea turtle species – Green, Olive Ridley, Leatherback, and Hawksbill – lay their eggs on the country’s beaches. All four are, to varying degrees, threatened species by the IUCN’s classification. The odds are certainly stacked against turtles: it is an oft-cited statistic that of every thousand turtles eggs, only one will reach adulthood.
In this small Central American country one of the greatest threats to sea turtles is the consumption of turtle eggs as a delicacy. While the Ministry of Environment (MARN) made it illegal to consume and commercialize eggs and other marine turtle products in 2009, the law does little to deter, much less offer alternatives to, tortugueros for whom egg collecting has historically been an important source of income. That’s why community-run turtle hatcheries such as the one on Playa Los Negros are so important. They work with egg collectors and coastal communities to make sure that turtle eggs don’t go to the black market, and instead become thriving, reproducing sea turtles.
Earlier in the evening, Bonerges Lovo, the hatchery’s keeper, showed us how it all works. It’s simple setup: a grid of black nylon string crisscrosses a large rectangular patch of sand that’s separated from the rest of the beach by a shallow ditch and a fence. Dried palm fronds provide shade and help regulate the temperature of the sand. Each square of the grid contains a nest and is marked with a tag indicating the collection date and number of eggs in the nest. As nests get closer to their due date, they’re enclosed in a cylinder of mesh wire so that hatchlings can be easily collected and counted before they’re released to the ocean.
Teams of tortugueros patrol the beach in shifts, and when an egg collector finds a nest, he immediately brings the eggs back to the hatchery where they’re counted, reburied, and marked. Egg collectors are paid $1.25 per fourteen eggs (a dozen plus two eggs which they contribute) and another $1.25 are put aside to purchase items – boats, nets, and other fishing materials, for example – in order to support alternative livelihoods for egg collectors and diminish their reliance on turtle eggs. The project is funded by FIAES and coordinated by our partners at the Mangrove Association.
It’s an innovative – and more importantly, effective – model for turtle conservation. The hatchery at Playa Los Negros has been functioning for eight years now, and each year the number of nests collected and hatchlings released steadily increases. In 2013, they collected 53,674 eggs from 582 nests and released 47,980 live hatchlings. When we visited in mid-October of this year, the hatchery already had well over 650 nests.
Conservation efforts are complemented by ongoing educational campaigns in coastal communities. ICAPO, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative, is another of our partners in the Bay of Jiquilisco. In addition to running hatcheries to protect the critically endangered Eastern Pacific Hawksbill sea turtle, ICAPO organizes the annual Hawksbill Festival. The festival is a celebration of conservation successes and an incredible opportunity to raise awareness among surrounding communities, especially young people, about the difficulties turtles face. This year the festival was held on the grounds of the school of La Pirraya, on Isla San Sebastian, and hundreds of adults and kids enjoyed the festivities: a parade, marching bands, speeches, a puppet show, clowns, turtle costume contests, games, and a soccer tournament – all dedicated to sea turtles and what we can do to mitigate our impact on them.
After an hour roaming the beach at Playa Los Negros, we get a sign: a tortuguero in the distance is waving his flashlight in the air to signal that he’s found a nesting turtle. We run to the spot and as we arrive, breathless, we spot her: a female Olive Ridley a little smaller than a car tire that has just laid a nest of several dozen eggs. She’s returning to the ocean; moving through the sand is a visibly laborious process. Eventually she disappears into the waves again.
Having achieved what we set out for, we head in for the night. I’m glad to have been a part of, if only for a few hours, this incredible process and to have caught a glimpse of the beauty and resilience of nature. The tortugueros will be patrolling the beach until dawn, continuing the important work of protecting these vulnerable species and restoring the environment.