So Tom in his super enthusiastic voice said, “come on, I’ll show you! They’re out there poaching eggs right now!” As we walked on to the beach, for as far as you could see in each direction I could make out flash light beams being turned on and off intermittently, I counted at least 10 different lights! “There they are” said Tom, “collecting as many turtle eggs as they can find!”
Turtle poaching in Central America is serious business, and on the 31 May 2013, 26yo Jairo Mora Sandoval, a local Costa Rican conservationist was kidnapped by at least five masked men with guns and brutally murdered while working for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Trust (WIDECAST) with four foreign female volunteers. Mora had worked monitoring and protecting baby turtle nests at Moin beach on the northern Caribbean coast.
Tom Pollak got his inspiration for La Tortuga Verde (The Green Turtle) from an incident in 2005, he was asleep on his property and was awoken by a man poaching turtle eggs as they were being laid from right next to where he was sleeping! He just could not believe this was happening so boldly on his property; unchecked, unregulated and literally devastating the turtles population. This incident prompted Tom to set up La Tortuga Verde, and he has been running the turtle sanctuary since 2009.
The Turtles that are common off the coast of El Salvador are the threatened olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), critically endangered leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).
Historically, Turtle eggs have always been consumed by the local populations of Central America and the eggs are considered a delicacy, with the egg prices fluctuating with the demand... but with a massively increasing population it is completely unsustainable and is driving all Turtle species in Central America towards extinction, “Just arrest one person and it would influence others not to poach” says Tom
“It’s in the culture to eat eggs and it is a delicacy, we need to show people how beautiful they are so they want to protect them”, says Tom
CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is an international agreement between countries that aims to protect species from extinction as a result of trade (this includes meat and eggs), El Salvador is one of the countries that has signed this agreement.
In addition in 2008 Tom spent a year harassing the government of El Salvador to restrict or abolish the practice of the taking of turtle eggs, the following year the selling of turtle eggs was declared illegal by the government of El Salvador
La Tortuga Verde is helped run by locals (extremely well paid and well looked after) and friendly foreigners who pass through to lend a hand, like Harry a super friendly, happy and enthusiastic American from Florida who has been working with Tom for the last 8 months. Harry gained his experience working with Turtles from the Turtle Conservatory in Florida and I found his knowledge to be quite extensive and his passion for protecting these amazing Turtles impressive to say the least!
La Tortuga Verde has everything from nurseries, conservation volunteers, hatch and release programs, paid beach monitoring personell and more. After the eggs are planted they take around 49 – 52 days to hatch and everything is captured on video for the purposes of environmental education, “it’s all about exposure and education” says Tom. In 2008 La Turtuga Verde purchased, re-buried and released over 10,000 eggs back into the wild! This number has continued to grow every year since...
Tom has also created a Green Zone in front of his property which has about 50ft of coverage to try and set an example to the other land owners and which is a deterrent for the many poachers eyeing off the Sanctuary and its eggs, along with this green zone Tom has hired and trained local people “vigil anti’s” as he calls them, who patrol his property for thieves and who also notify him of eggs that have been poached in the area so Tom can buy them, replant them and release them once hatched...
The way Tom is approaching the conservation of the Turtles of El Salvador is very pro – active and very unique… he has started up a TV series which promotes the Turtle populations as a viable tourism option and heavily involves the local community, especially the kids!
The more exposure we can get on this issue the better, to expose the environmental exploitation that is occurring around the Central American coast; like the stories of prawn fisherman cutting the back legs off turtles to get to the eggs in their bellies and throw them back in the sea to bleed to death, or the “Calvo” super trawler that is operating out off the coast of El Salvador raping the ocean of all it has including the catch of huge quantities of sharks for their fins…
The solution… is education and exposure as Tom put it.
I see that the older generation is too far gone… stuck in their old habits and habitual patterns of environmental exploitation, it’s the younger generation that is going to save so many species from extinction and are actually keeping the world environmentally aware… I still have hope.