FEATURE ARTICLE - Scientific America
August 17, 2001
The Trouble with Turtles
Despite heroic efforts to protect the nesting beaches of green turtles, fewer and fewer of these endangered creatures reappear every year.Researchers have been stunned to discover that shielding young turtles is only half the battle

East Pacific green turtle
EAST PACIFIC green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is one of five sea turtles that frequent the warm coastal lagoons of Mexico's Baja California. Biologist Wallace J. Nichols hoists a 55-pound green that will be tagged and released for further study.
PUERTO SAN CARLOS, MEXICO-- Here along the Pacific coast of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, a celebration--Easter, a birthday, the arrival of important guests--calls for a meal of caguama, or turtle. Locals also covet the animal's medicinal properties. The best-tasting, according to most, is the East Pacific green turtle (Chelonia mydas). But the green, one of five marine turtles in Pacific Mexico, is theoretically off limits. Killing them has been strictly prohibited by the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1978 and by Mexican law since 1990.

Not relying solely on the law, every year scientists, volunteers and even army units camp out along green turtle nesting beaches in southern Mexico to block poachers and predators from snatching the eggs needed to produce new generations of the animals. Even so, the number of mature females returning to the green's primary nesting beach has plummeted from 1,280 in 1990 to 145 in 2000. Why are the turtles missing?


New research estimates that as many as 30,000 green turtles are killed every year by poachers in Baja.

Researchers have known for decades that people in fishing communities occasionally eat the green turtle, but new research has only now revealed that this tradition is colluding with egg poaching to bring about the animal's devastating decline. Scientists at the Autonomous University of Baja California estimate that poachers kill as many as 30,000 green turtles every year in Baja. The study indicates that most of the demand for the turtles comes from the government sector--politicians, teachers and the military--those with cash to pay for the delicacy and positions of power to escape legal repercussions.

At a Restaurant
AT ONE RESTAURANT in Puerto San Carlos, turtle is a specialty. The animal is butchered (top), cleaned (bottom), then cooked slowly for several hours to form a spicy stew. The final product can earn the restaurant owner a profit of more than $400 for each turtle.
Cooking Turtle
For some experts, the recent findings call into question the decades-old assumption that protection of turtle eggs and hatchlings is the best way to assure the animals' survival. Clearly, they say, the adults need better defending as well. Biologist Wallace J. Nichols, director of Wildcoast, a California-based conservation group, knows of poachers who have caught dozens of turtles and have been let go with a warning and confiscated catch. The last time a poacher went to jail was two years ago for only 12 days.

Nichols documents his findings in part by searching for turtle shells in town dumps and behind seafood restaurants. "The law is good," he says, "but there's no enforcement."

And there is plenty of reason to hunt the animals. In the bustling community of Puerto San Carlos, a mature turtle is worth $50 to $200. That's a powerful incentive to catch turtles instead of the seasonal harvest of yellowtail, snapper, corbinas, clams and crabs, which garner a fisherman a modest living for long hours of labor.

Some local residents are trying to change the situation. Adán Hernandez took the turtle cure when he was 14 years old: a glass of fresh blood collected directly from a turtle's lopped-off flipper. He believes the concoction helped him grow from a scrawny, sickly kid into a healthy 25-year-old.

"I took life from the turtle," says Hernandez, a former fishing guide now working with Nichols to spread the gospel of marine conservation in a town that often sees the marine reptiles as a reliable source of protein. "Now I want to give back. When I see a caguama in someone's boat, I just go up to them and throw it back in the water. I know who is dangerous and who won't do anything."


"I took life from the turtle," says a former fishing guide turned conservationist. "Now I want to give back."

Nichols, Hernandez and a few leaders of the fishing community are trying to establish a marine sanctuary in a nearby estuary, but the plan faces opposition from some political leaders--and is hardly likely to be endorsed by the poachers.

Given the cultural and political obstacles to stopping turtle harvesting, Nichols says his goals are modest. He tries to convince people to eat fewer turtles--say, five a year instead of 10--or perhaps to let the big reproductive females go free.

"It's impossible to stop it," Nichols says. "But you talk to people and agree that we both want turtles to be around in the future."