09 December 2010

My Untimely Arrival at Chacocente Wildlife Refuge, Nicaragua

The next stop on my "Tour of Nicaraguan Turtle Beaches" with FFI's Jose Urteaga is Refugio de Vida Silvestre Rio Escalante Chacocente, Chacocente for short. Chacocente is one of only two beaches on Nicaragua's Pacific coast where the Olive ridley sea turtle nests "in mass". This phenomenon, also known as an "arribada" which means "the arrival", only occurs on a small number of beaches in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans - a handful occurring in Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and a few in India. Elsewhere in the world, the Olive Ridley is a solitary nester like other sea turtle species.

An Olive ridley track

Much to my dismay an arribada occurred just a few days before my arrival here, with approximately 10,000 Olive ridley nests being deposited over the course of just a few days on this very beach that I am walking on. In my time working with sea turtles I have yet to witness an Olive ridley arribada but imagine it would leave me without words.  Today, only a few scattered tracks remain on the beach.

The Olive ridley is the only turtle to put on such a spectacular nesting display which occurs approximately every 28 days during the nesting season. During these few days, tens of thousands of turtles may converge on a single stretch of beach, competing for prime beachfront realty, and inadvertently digging up each others nests in the process of laying their own. This "mass nesting" strategy is thought to overwhelm predators, ensuring the survival of some of the young, although the arribada strategy is still somewhat a mystery to scientists.

The beach here at Chacocente is really spectacular....and really hot today. I'm walking this scenic stretch of beach with a University student from Managua that is here to do her thesis research.  She's looking at the hatch success rate of nests in relation to the density of nests on the beach. Olive ridley arribada beaches, with their high density of nests, naturally have lower hatching success rates than other beaches where turtles are solitary nesters and nests are spaced out along the beach.  As we collect sand temperatures from the study sites, armed military guards are walking down the beach on patrol. 

The beaches here are part of a wildlife reserve, managed by MARENA - the Nicaraguan Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, and are patrolled by the Nicaraguan military. Jose and Fauna & Flora International work in collaboration with these entities to manage the sea turtle program here, protecting the turtle eggs from poachers.  Although the Olive ridley is the most abundant of sea turtles worldwide, their numbers have been in decline due to poaching and other threats like entanglement in fishing gear.

This part of Nicaragua also holds one of the largest tracts of dry forest in the country.  FFI is also working with the government and local communities here to manage and preserve this important habitat and develop alternative livelihoods for locals including reforestation projects and providing services to visitors.

A troop of Howler monkeys laze in the trees within the Refuge.
The 10,000 Olive ridley nests that were deposited here just prior to my visit are due to hatch in January.  Although I missed the last arribada by just a few days, perhaps my next visit will coincide with the hatching and mass exodus of thousands of tiny little hatchlings making their way to the sea.  I can hope at least, that the timing of my arrival will be better next time around.

For more information about Fauna & Flora International's work in Nicaragua click here.

For information on how to contribute your time to a sea turtle conservation project, see our Volunteer page.

Paula von Weller
Research Associate
SEE Turtles

04 December 2010

Critically Endangered Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Finds Refuge in Small Fishing Community

Reserva Natural Estero Padre Ramos lies on the Northern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, near the border of Honduras. This area was recently discovered to be an important nesting area for the critically endangered Eastern Pacific Hawksbill, a population teetering on the edge of extinction. The only other known Hawksbill nesting area of this magnitude in the entire Eastern Pacific is to the north, in the nearby country of El Salvador.

This year Marine Biologist and my guide for the next couple of days, FFI's Jose Urteaga, began collaborating with the local community of fishermen here in Padre Ramos to begin a nest protection program for the Hawksbill. Jose is Fauna & Flora International's Nicaragua Program Manager and was named one of National Geographic's 2010 Emerging Explorers for his sea turtle conservation work in Nicaragua.

Padre Ramos, a small remote fishing community has, up to this point, collected the Hawksbill eggs for sale and consumption. Now the locals, once poachers, have become conservationists, protecting the nests and hoping to draw visitors to see this critically important area while improving the livelihoods of the locals and protecting their natural resources. The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill population is so low that scientists aren't even sure how many remain. The Hawksbill has historically, and continues to be, hunted for its beautiful shell used to make jewelry and other ornaments. Pressure from poaching has only accelerated their decline.

My journey to Padre Ramos begins in the bustling capital city of Managua and takes me through small towns framed by lush green and dotted with banana and sugar cane plantations, with towering volcanoes in the distance. The area that we are headed to sits on the edge of a mangrove system. Here the Hawksbill travels inland, nesting on small estuary islands. The only other place Hawksbills are known to do this is in El Salvador. Elsewhere, they nest on ocean beaches like other sea turtle species.

As we board a small boat to explore the area, I am delighted by the natural beauty of this place - with the ocean to my left, the mangroves before me, and the towering volcano to my right that is actively smoking. We visit the two main nesting islands here. As I walk the beaches I imagine the Hawksbill, under the cover of darkness, hauling herself up high onto the beach and into the vegetation to lay her precious clutch of pearl-shaped eggs. This time of year though only remnants remain on the beach of her presence, empty eggshells that once held her tiny offspring.

Isla La Tigra - A Hawksbill
nesting beach

During the nesting season locals are monitoring and tagging the nesting females that come here to lay eggs and managing a hatchery where the eggs are guarded around the clock. During the first season of the project (2010), 280 nests were protected, an impressive number for a Hawksbill beach that was relatively unknown to researchers just a year ago, and for such an endangered population.

We return to the town where I am warmly greeted by the locals who welcome me and are interested in my visit to Padre Ramos. They are hopeful that their new lives as conservationists will bring good things to this small community that once not long ago, exploited the turtles unsustainably. Feeling inspired by their enthusiasm, I hope to return to Padre Ramos in June, during the peak of the nesting season, to volunteer my time and get my hands sandy.

For information about volunteering on a sea turtle conservation project, please see our website for details.

For more information about the status of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill see ICAPO -the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative website.

Paula von Weller
Research Associate
SEE Turtles

07 October 2010

The Hawksbill & The High Price of Being Beautiful

While traveling in Nicaragua, I made a special trip this past week to the artisan market in Masaya south of the capital city of Managua. The “Mercado Nacional de Artesanias” is the largest artisan market in Nicaragua and perhaps Latin America according to some sources.  I was anxious to find some colorful handicrafts to return home with.  The open-air market, with 80 or so shops, is housed in a restored 19th century building with castle-like walls and was nearly destroyed in the Revolution of 1978-1979. 

As I wandered around the market I began to see what looked like jewelry made of sea turtle shell, semi-transparent with creamy gold and brown streaks.  I stopped at one vendor and asked in my very limited Spanish if the bracelets were “tortuga marina” in which the woman enthusiastically responded that yes they were indeed made from “tortuga Carey.”  Tortuga Carey in Latin America means Hawksbill.  I snapped a photo and continued on my way only to find vendor after vendor with piles of jewelry made from the colorfully patterned shell of the Hawksbill which was hunted almost to extinction for this very reason.

I left the market empty handed, feeling disappointed about my finds.  The Hawksbill sea turtle is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  It is also protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  CITES is an international agreement between countries aimed at protecting species from extinction as a result of trade.  The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill in particular is thought to be the most endangered sea turtle population worldwide. The species was hunted almost to extinction for its ornately colored shell to make trinkets, jewelry, eyeglass frames, wall hangings and other crafts.  The Hawksbill is also under threat from habitat degradation, incidental capture in fisheries, and poaching of eggs.  The IUCN estimates that Hawksbills have declined by as much as 80% across their range. 

Items made from sea turtle shell are often referred to as “tortoiseshell.”  Sometimes this material is synthetic, although it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two unless you know what you're looking at.  It is illegal to purchase, possess, or trade sea turtle products.  When traveling abroad and purchasing souvenirs, be sure to purchase only synthetic “tortoiseshell”, or when in doubt avoid these products to ensure you aren't buying the real thing.

For more information about sea turtles and illegal trade with links to more information, see our Poaching & Illegal Trade page.

Research Associate
SEE Turtles

12 August 2010

El Salvador Turtle Conservation Update

(Note: We are posting updates from Josh Baugh, a student at DePauw University who is interning with FUNZEL, one of El Salvador's leading conservation groups. SEE Turtles has helped fund Josh's work. This is an edited post, for the full story, visit Josh's blog.)

Nearly all that I have been doing and writing about in my time here in San Diego is in some way related to turtle research and conservation. Much of my writing although political in nature remains rooted in what I have experienced working and living at a turtle hatchery. Admittedly, I have seen and experienced much outside of the hatchery as well through helping Antonio with his work with CEPRODE, a nationwide internationally funded organization designed to help protect communities against natural disasters. As president of the local CEPRODE, Antonio is always going to the river, which with each rain threatens the rural community, and working throughout the community. I have found that hopping on the rusty bike I've been loaned and tagging along with him is a great way of building trust and getting to know the community. Through this means I have learned about a lot of the problems in the community and those shared throughout the country that are reducing the success of the USAID turtle project. All of this time spent with him and out in the community has been invaluable and in my mind equally important to the turtle work I have been doing.

Currently, I am working on three projects in addition to assisting Nefta and Antonio at the hatchery during the night. These are monitoring the temperature and humidity of the hatchery, taking GPS points at all the 2009 turtle nesting locations in Playa San Diego and taking GPS points of all light sources along the beach, as well as a measurement of their relative light intensity. The first regarding the hatchery is for Funzel/USAID and is designed to help assist them with better hatchery management. Temperature and humidity are both very important to monitor as in Olive Ridleys and all species of turtles, sex is determined by temperature. In the Olive Ridely species I am working with an incubation temperature above 30.5˚C produces all females and below all males. Measuring humidity by means of precipitation is important for hatchery management as well because rain is the primary natural means of reducing incubation temperature. Without monitoring temperature and humidity it is likely that a hatchery will produce all males or females, thereby disrupting the sex ratio in wild sea turtle populations.

The second and third projects I mentioned involving the GPS are being done to assist Rodrigo Samayoa, current Vice President of Funzel, on a scientific paper proposing proper beach management for sea turtles. My research is providing him with data regarding the effect of beach lighting on nesting populations. Currently there is debate as to whether or not lighting negatively affects the Olive Ridley species. In other species of sea turtle it has been proven that direct lights along the beach confuse the turtles to the point that they are disoriented and unable to locate nesting grounds and have difficulty returning to the sea.

On daily basis I am monitoring the temperature and rain gage by taking readings 4 times a day. I take one at 6am, 12pm, 6pm and 12am. Additionally, during the night when the conditions are right Nefta and I walk the beach to look for nesting females during the night. The rest of the night we are resting in our hammocks waiting for the tortugueros to bring eggs to us. You can say that we let them do the work for us in this regard but it is a way of livelihood for many of them that have been doing it for years. After they bring the eggs in we count them and then Antonio calculates how much money they will receive using a chart from USAID. Currently we are paying $3 per 14 eggs brought in. Right then Antonio will give them a receipt that they can bring in during the next time that USAID comes to pay. They come on a weekly basis.

I have posted some pictures to further describe my work. But another thing I should mention is that I had the opportunity to go out to sea with some fisherman to see the turtles mating. We were lucky enough to have them come right next to the boat so I got some good shots of the whole deal. I also took some videos which I unfortunately unable to post but in the process of taking those I made myself seasick. Lets just say that by the end of those 3 hours at sea I was throwing up off the side of the boat. Another cool thing I have been able to do is work with the tortugueros and extract eggs to bring to the hatchery. With the olive ridley season picking up now as well we have started giving tours to tourist in which they can come walk the beach learn about turtles and then help release hatchlings. These tours are being run through a hostel that is being built and a supporting committee. This is all still being formed and could be a great place for future volunteers interested in turtles to come stay. I have been offered a spot on the committee, which would give me partial ownership. I am currently debating this option.


09 August 2010

Art for Conservation

Artist Gloria Clifford has loved nature as long as she can remember.  Growing up in rural Virginia, her earliest memories were of collecting fish in a nearby lake and taking them home to create little habitats in her room.  Watching episodes of the tv show Sea Hunt, she began a love affair with the ocean that continues to today.  For several years, she lived in the Florida Keys and spent as much time in the water observing wildlife like sea turtles, corals, and fish while diving.  These dives are her muse, inspiring her to create gorgeous paintings that bring the ocean alive.

Like many of us, she watched coverage of the BP oil spill with a broken heart, wondering what she could do to help.  "For me, being an artist is not just a career but a passion", says Gloria.  "There are so many beautiful and wondrous things on this Earth of ours and I would like to be a part of saving these magnificient animals, plants, and ocean creatures for all future generations to enjoy."

Gloria decided to do her part by donating 25% of profits of her newest sea turtle prints to SEE Turtles to support our mission to protect sea turtles around the world.  The prints are available in two sizes, 8.5" x 13.5" for $45 and 11" x 18"for $58.  "It is my hope that my paintings will touch someone's heart and that those who see my works of art will realize how very precious the creatures that live on our planet truly are. We are all responsible and every one of us has a part in future conservation."

See all of the prints and order from her website, www.GloriaClifford.com.

23 July 2010

El Salvador Part 2

(Note: Over the next couple of months, we'll be posting updates from Josh Baugh, a student at DePauw University who is interning with FUNZEL, one of El Salvador's leading conservation groups. SEE Turtles has helped fund Josh's work. This is an edited post, for the full story, visit Josh's blog.)

To tell you a little more about San Diego and what I have actually been up to here thus far. During a typical day most of the work is done at night, so I will begin there. At around 7 it is getting dark here and we have dinner. After dinner I watch the telenovelas (soap operas) with them for a bit and drink another cup of coffee before Antonio and I head to the other part of the property where I live. Next to my room there is a little meeting area where the viveristas (hatchery workers Antonio, Necta and myself) hangout. As it gets later we migrate to our hammocks that hang in the adjacent hallway. Occasionally tortugueros will come in and chat before they go out to the beach during the early hours. Later during the night, after we sleep a bit in the hammocks, Necta and I head to the beach to walk and look for turtles. This usually falls between 10-1 depending on the weather and tide. 

After the walk we nestle back down in our hammocks and sleep until the tortugueros bring in eggs. This can occur anytime throughout the night and early morning. When this occurs Antonio fills out the information with the tortugueros and Necta and I take the eggs out to the hatchery after counting them. Some nights there are few eggs brought in and we get to sleep a lot but other nights there is a constant stream of eggs. Its good for conservation purposes but can be hard on the body so usually I will then wake up a little before 6 with the sun and proceed to stumble to my room to sleep for a few more hours in my bed. At around 8 I go to Antonio’s house and have breakfast. Typically then there is work to be done around the community that he could use a hand with so I offer my help. Another body to help work is pretty valuable here.

Antonio is the president of the river cooperative in San Diego (El Salvador) that is in charge of preparing the community for natural disasters involving the river. The river constantly needs work and so there is always something to be done. Whenever it rains, the river threatens the nearby farms and properties composed of the poorer population that don’t have the resources to protect themselves or their land. When it really rains during a tropical storm for example, the river rises and floods all of the farms. To make matters worse soon after a flood the mosquitoes prosper and people get sick as a result of the swarms. I have been told that they will carry malaria but I don’t know for sure. It is good that I take malaria medicine nonetheless! 

One day I helped them clear a log jam, perhaps one of the scarier things I’ve done thus far in El Salvador. No one wears shoes and when I tried to get in with mine at first they ensured me that it was a bad idea as they would get ruined or disappear with the current. After watching for a bit I crept into the muddy water shoeless and ready to jump the minute a snake or leech scathed any part of my body. Surprisingly, the bottom was sandy and the only real concerns were the occasional spiny tree (espina) or the current. Soon I got the hang of it and managed to be of help. The other main job that I have helped with is the construction of a hostel for volunteers that in the future can come and stay there, work in the hatchery, learn about turtles and go on excursions to the rest of the country. It has a lot of promise and the lady who owns it, Mary speaks English perfectly and is already very involved with the hatchery. She has been very kind to me and has allowed me to use her wfi, which is were I am sending this from. Additionally, she has invited me to do things with her family and has been all around extremely helpful. I actually went to her son’s house in San Salvador to watch the final game of the world cup. More to come on all of that later.

There is big storm blowing in so I need to get off of here. Another tropical depression/storm I have heard but first, other important news to know about my time in San Diego;

-I saw my first nesting female on Tuesday night, another Thursday night

-We had our first tortuguita (hatchling) yesterday, which I released (I have it on video)

-On July 16 we had our first full nest hatch. 51 in total!

-Today the 17th we have had two more nest hatch with 35 and 33 hatchlings!

*I hope the pictures help describe the hatchlings for now.

Thanks for reading!

19 July 2010

Latest update from El Salvador

(Note: Over the next couple of months, we'll be posting updates from Josh Baugh, a student at DePauw University who is interning with FUNZEL, one of El Salvador's leading conservation groups. SEE Turtles has helped fund Josh's work. This is an edited post, for the full story, visit Josh's blog.)

Sat, July 19th, 2010 (Part 1 of 2)

I arrived in San Diego Playa (not to be confused with San Diego, California) on Friday July 9th at around 7 am after leaving from Puerto Parada, the small port at the entrance of the Bahia de Jiquilisco, at around 1 pm on Wednesday. The trip took so long but not because of the distance, as you could cover much of Central America in that time by car. Rather, like any excursion I've been on here in Latin America, there are plenty of stops to make and when you get there isn’t nearly as important as what you manage to do and see along the way.

Irene, a girl around Aldo’s age (15 or 16), was most interested in what I was doing and so she choose to come and hangout with us before I left.  There next to the beach we all lounged around on a rancha (boat) looking up at the sky and the surrounding mountains. They all chattered over Aldo’s reggaton (mix of rap and pop music) coming from his phone, while I tried to take in the last bit of the island and its beauty. 9:30 soon passed and it became evident that Nefta’s belief that there would be a rancha was more of a hope than a reality.  It was not until 11:50 that a rancha finally came by but nonetheless, just in time to get me to Puerto Parada in time to meet Mike. I was only a few minutes late but it ended up not being a problem as Mike was at home there in the CODEPA office, and the adjacent restaurant. Before hitting the road to San Salvador we had a plate of the local shrimp and a coke while watching Spain play in the semifinal game against Alemania (Germany).

After catching half of the game we hit the road in order to save some time. Having not seen or really talked to Mike in quite a while, I had a great deal to tell him about the island and why I thought moving to San Diego Playa would be a good change. In actuality there was much that he hadn’t told me about the politics between organizations and the problems occurring that I might face. Yet, he did not know the extent of the issues so that drive proved to be very informative for the both of us and frankly really refreshing for me, to find out that there is a lot occurring there currently that is beyond my control (more info below). 

The next morning Mike left at 3:30 am for a meeting in Nicaragua so a lady for US AID, Carmen, came to pick me up. It was a bit of a tense morning as Mike, my one tried and true connection in the country was now gone for 10 days in another country, and I was relaying on a lady I had never meet. Yet, she showed up and that day proved to be really interesting as I got to see a lot of the central portion of the coast. After she picked me up at around 9 am, we spent the entire rest of the day going to beaches to talk to the hatchery workers about what sort of technical aspects that can improve in their hatchery. Additionally, I witnessed 3 different meetings she held with the tortugueros in the area as to whether they wanted the price they get paid for a dozen eggs to increase to $3 or to stay at $2.40. All agreed that it was best that it stay at $2.40 so that the US AID money would not run out as quickly because after it does they will want to take the eggs to the market and will be liable to be arrested.

One of the meetings was held in San Diego where I was going to be staying; yet she thought it would be best if I returned the next morning so that I could experience more of the beaches. I didn’t have a problem with that so after a quick introduction following the meeting we hit the road. After a final meeting that night in a nearby beach, Carmen and I were shown our rooms that a guy was kind enough to let us use for the night. It wasn’t much more than a mattress and a few walls, but I was out cold by 9:30 pm. That next morning at 6 we headed straight for San Diego where I meet Antonio again and after being shown my room Carmen left. To my surprise Antonio was much more welcoming than he had been the previous night in a business setting. He quickly made me feel at home by introducing me to his daughter and grandson that live with him and sitting down with me to a delicious breakfast.

Antonio is a bit of a legend in El Salvador I am told, as he was the first in the country to begin collecting eggs for conservation purposes. Eighteen years ago, he started his own hatchery here in San Diego by asking tortugeros, egg collectors, if they would donate a dozen or so to his hatchery. To put things in perspective, last year his hatchery released 92,000 olive ridley tortuguitas (hatchlings), making his hatchery one of the most productive in the country. Statistically however, only 1 out of every 1,000 will survive to reproduce and thus only some 92 of those will contribute in the future to the preservation of the species. Yet, it is needless to say that the work he is doing here is extremely valuable and commendable. * I believe, there is a great deal that I can learn from him concerning turtles and community-based conservation, so I may be staying in San Diego for a time.

In summary, U.S. AID who has the money behind the 1-year project has come into the area and essentially taken over the hatchery ignoring the local people who previously supported the hatchery and conservation of turtles when there wasn’t money. They have chosen not to work with the local organization, CODEPA, which led the previous turtle conservation projects in the area. It is needless to say that these local experts associated with CODEPA are furious that they have not been included. To many of them, I am a symbol of the foreigners that are now running the turtle projects from a far even though I do not actually work for any of those organizations, just with them. In the more than 3 weeks that I was there, I was just beginning to get the message across to the local people that I was simply a volunteer looking to study the turtles and aid the turtle conservation in the area in as well.

Additionally inhibiting the progress of turtle conservation in the area and my ability to be of help is the current economic situation on the island and really in all of El Salvador. We think that the economy is bad in the United States, well our gov. at least has the ability to aid its own people. Here the government is largely reliant on international organizations to come to their people’s rescue. Unfortunately, the people in the community of la Pirraya, where I lived, being that they are isolated, seem to be some of the last to get any aid. The resulting economic situation has created a tremendous pressure on the fishing industry in the bay, which was already suffering from overfishing. Seeing that nearly all of the families are composed of fishermen there is a real crisis at hand.

How is this related to turtles? Well a fisherman I am told is lucky to earn $5-10 a day from fishing, as there are fewer and fewer fish and they get less for their caught. Seeing that turtle eggs can sell for well over $3 a dozen at restaurants and when a single hawksbill turtle can lay well over 150 eggs, being a tortuguero can be very lucrative. For this reason, there are well over 200 tortugueros (egg collectors) on the island. For many of the people on the island, the money they earn that day is all they have to survive. With this sort of economic pressure, it is hard for a person quite reasonably to be concerned with turtles. The hatchery where I worked does in fact pay the collectors that bring the eggs to the hatchery but this money comes from U.S. AID who has to send a representative from the capital. The money they pay is not only below the market price, but it takes a week to come. For these reasons the collectors that do come to the hatchery are only those that have installed in them a sense of responsibility to the turtles. For the rest the economic factors prove to be overwhelming.

In my time on the island, we received 3 nests in total of which, 2 were carey or hawksbill, and the other golfina or olive ridley. Although, there hasn’t been a lot of nesting thus far in the season there should be many more eggs Mike, my American contact and a hawksbill researcher tells me. According to him, we should have half of the total eggs that are normally received in a single season by this time. The day I left on July 6 we had 2,136 huevos (eggs) in the hatchery and we had encountered zero turtles during our night walks. To put the stats into perspective, last year they had 60 hawksbills, 8 green turtles, and 850 olive ridleys. This year, in May there was 1 turtle and in June there were 6. It is needless to say that there are fewer turtles that are being reported or seen by the viveristas (hatchery workers) and more importantly, fewer eggs actually being brought into the hatchery. I believe this to be a result of fewer people reporting turtle sightings and fewer people being obligated to bring eggs to the hatchery. This quite simply is a result of fewer people working together on the project. Nefta, Moises and myself, the only ones working on the project, are not a sufficient force to monitor the turtle population, patrol the beach and run the hatchery.

Sadly, there were several conversations I was witness to between tortugueros and my fellow hatchery workers, in which the tortugueros would talk openly about seeing a turtle, meaning they had collected the eggs yet I hadn’t ever seen them at the hatchery. Nefta, Moises and I, slept at the hatchery nearly every night and were always there during turtle hours (8 pm-8 am) in the case that a tortuguero had eggs. Unfortunately, the tortuegeros were choosing to sell them on the market to be eaten. Why haven’t they been brought in? Well as I stated earlier and I hope is now more evident, the coalition of tortugueros led by CODEPA that was active in previous years is not functioning. Additionally, the police are not getting involved and therefore the tortugueros now aren’t obligated to have a card that says they are registered to take eggs. Instead, it is a free for all and given the economy and lack of organization/support for the hatchery, few eggs are being brought to the hatchery. The people with a true wealth of knowledge of the turtles in the area, I would see around as they would talk to us, but they were not helping at the hatchery or patrolling the beach at night, as the had in the past.

As you hopefully realize now, it is a complicated situation there on the Island of San Sebastian and really no place for an inexperienced volunteer student. San Diego is a good alternative where I can get more experience both working with people, getting to know the turtles and improving my Spanish. Here with my own space, good living conditions, and more experienced, organized and respected individuals to work with, I have the ability to grow personally. After some time here I hope I can return to la Pirraya in the Bahia de Jiquilisco. For now, it is good that I am here.

14 July 2010

Its All Reconnected, Redux

(Cross posted from HuffingtonPost)

A common question asked of scientists is how the oil spill will affect life in the Gulf.

My sense is that it will effect directly or indirectly, severely or slightly every single form of life in the Gulf, for many years to come. The air, the water, the sand, the mud, the microbes, the plankton, the marshgrass, the mangroves, the jellyfish, the oysters, the shrimp, the shorebirds, the turtles, the sharks, the redfish, the children, the fishermen, the chefs, the taxi drivers, the artists, the oil industry workers, the politicians. Every single bit and blob of life will be impacted. Save a few oil-eating microbes, no life will change for the better.

Some life will be killed immediately, others will suffer slowly. Some will move away, in search of food, in search of jobs. Some aren't able to move.

From a single hole, drilled into the bottom of the ocean 5000 feet underwater, gushes catastrophe.

The signature chemistry of the oil coming from the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon well, mixed liberally with the dispersant Corexit that has streamed into the ocean with it, can now be found on the shores of every Gulf state. It's in the bodies of thousands of species of sea life. It's in the mouths of hundreds of sea turtles. It's on the hands and feet and in the lungs of Texans, Louisianans, Mississippians, Floridians, Mexicans as well as all workers and visitors to the Gulf coast. The fact is we don't know exactly what that means for the health of those in harms way, or for the next generation. Testing on previous versions of Corexit mixed with oil indicate an additive effect. Together they're more toxic than alone. Previous studies suggest a whole range of ecocidal properties of this chemical soup, from the death of duck embryos to internal bleeding in humans.

A single error amplified and shared equally among individuals, bad apples, misinformed response teams, corrupt regulators, greedy executives, hypnotized politicians, misguided energy policies, and an oil-addicted society, has resulted in our nation's worst environmental disaster.

It's all connected. You've heard it before from ecologists, astronomers, physicists and metaphysicians alike. And the main reason so many thinkers from such diverse backgrounds find agreement on that point is this: everything is.

Each of us has used oil from the Gulf in a variety of joyful and productive ways. To visit grandma's house, to commute to work, to hold water, to make music or to save lives.

What we absolutely didn't have in mind at the time was disaster. My first hope is that one impact of the Gulf oil spill is that the very real line leading from our hands to the gas tank to the pump to the tanker to the rig in the middle of the ocean is somewhat brighter than before. And that that line now stretching from the rig, to the spill, to an asphalted salt marsh, to a dead industry, to a torn family is likewise clearer.

My other hope is that we can now see that all things are connected: us and nature and, unfortunately, oil. And there are much, much better ways to be connected.

07 July 2010

Staring Down the Dragon on Dependence Day

by Wallace J. Nichols for CNN iReports

iReport —
On the night of the Fourth of July, I flew into New Orleans.  I watched from above as fireworks sailed from below into the sky to celebrate Independence Day.

The young man from a small Louisiana coastal town sitting next to me said "I've never seen fireworks from above."

"Me neither."

"I've never been on a plane before this either," he added.

A few hours later I was back in the sky, this time flying above a different kind of fireworks. The kind that mourn our dependence.

Our small Cessna traced the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, documenting the flow of oil and tar balls onto islands, wetlands, mangroves, beaches and the inadequacy of the bright yellow and orange booms floating here and there and more often than not, beachcast and twisted by the wind and waves.

One member of our team a government geologist studying the weathering of oil on seawater.  One member of our team a environmental toxicologist.  Our pilot, a NASA scientist herself.  And myself, a marine biologist in search of sea turtles.

Bonny skillfully skirted the edges of thunderclouds and positioned our plane wherever we wanted it.

Down the oily coast we flew.  Timbalier and Cat Islands, Grand Isle, the Mississippi River Delta, Chandeleur Islands.  None of these places, and so many others, will be themselves for a long time.

Then we turned offshore, for deep water.  Beneath us muddy water, oily water, oily muddy water.  Then the edge, a giant convergence, between deep blue and shallower oily water for as far as we could see.  There we found a school of forty cownose mantas, searching for food, traveling together.  Without a doubt they have all eaten oil.

We flew further offshore.  Closer to "ground zero," the site of the oil gusher and location of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon.

I've spent my adult life working for the ocean, the endangered animals living in it, and the people who depend on it.  I've seen the wholesale destruction of species by commercial fishing, illegal hunting and the destruction caused by plastic pollution.  But none of that prepared me for this.

Our plane surveyed a path of the thousands of square miles of destroyed ocean habitat.  Then we descended a bit and flew over "ground zero", the site of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon. A new platform has taken its place. A large flame of burning methane jetting from the side.  Ships worked the waters all around.  Bands of oil extended off into the distance, set off by the deep blue of the Gulf.

We were close. So close I could smell it.  The cockpit filled with fumes.  I breathed in the foul breath of the fire dragon.  We buzzed the beast, like a pesky fly.  Our small craft banked, circled back around for a closer look.  This time I held my breath.

I thought of the tragic loss of human lives that occurred just below me ten weeks prior.  I thought of the massive loss of animal life that's already happened and will unfold throughout this ocean for years to come.  I thought of the distraught fisherman who took his own life.  I thought of the people below, working to stop the flow of oil, working to burn the oil on the surface.  I thought about my daughters.  I thought ten million other things at the same time.  I felt like I was going to cry.  Somehow I didn't, but I raged inside silently.

Eventually, I could hold my breath no longer and I sucked in the breath of the fire dragon again.

I will think of the Deepwater Horizon every time I smell that smell.  Every time I pump gas into my tank, or ride my bike behind a truck on a busy street.  At airports and bus stops.  At BP, Exxon, or Chevron stations.  It will keep me going in this ocean revolution, our collective effort to slay the dragon.

Music: Alfonso Burgos, Seri elder, a tribe in Mexico with a deep connection to sea turtles.

02 July 2010

Supporting animal welfare on the Osa Peninsula

(Guest Post from SEE Turtles Traveler Judy Bradshaw, who came with us on a recent Costa Rica trip)

In May I volunteered for a sea turtle project in Costa Rica, but before I met the turtle group I traveled by myself for a week. I flew to San Jose where I spent a couple of days and then took Sansa airlines to Puerto Jiminez on the Osa Peninsula in SW Costa Rica and then took a pick-up over bumpy dirt roads for several miles to a remote, reasonably-priced, charming little lodge (Danta Corcovado Lodge) that was near Corcovado National Park that was filled with wild animals like pumas and tapirs and boa constrictors, among other things (monkeys and fer-de-lances). Jungle. I loved it. 

At the lodge I talked to a retired philosophy professor from the University of Delaware who knew Costa Rica and spoke English and Spanish. In the course of one of our numerous conversations, he told me that I should meet the Peace Corps volunteer who was stationed in La Palma, a nearby small town, because she was interested in helping the village dogs and cats, like I was and was despondent about their terrible condition, like I was.

And Laura was contacted, and she rode her bike to the lodge and we talked. She said that she thought that the people in her community were on the edge of a change in how they perceived their animals...one woman had asked her for flea powder for her dog...and many had observed some Americans with their animals who looked good. On the other hand, female puppies were thrown into the streets (a primitive form of birth control). She wanted to try a spay and neuter (castrado) clinic there and had talked to the vet in Puerto Jiminez who was willing to come out with his staff and do a one day gig. The local Catholic Church (now into birth control!!!) had donated a room.

The vet wanted about $15/animal and she thought the people could only afford about $4. I asked her how much she would need to do a one day clinic and she did some calculations and said $470. I told her I would give it to her. 

When I got home on May 17, I sent a check for the money to her parents in Colorado, and they put it in her account and she did all the work organizing and publicizing the clinic in La Palma. We saw it as promoting a change in consciousness about how animals were treated and also allowing the people to invest in their animals in a small way and make them more valuable to them. It was about changing perspective and relationship. I thought of this as an experiment equivalent to a crap shoot. We were both very excited...not knowing if anyone would sign up for it.

Here are excerpts from her emails to me:

May 27 - My parents got the check, thank you so much. I wanted to give you a quick update. The clinic will be on June 9th and as of a week ago all the appointments were filled. Between 20 and 25 animals will be spayed or neutered. The response has made me believe that it was both travel and financial barriers were the reason for the over population problems. As soon as people heard that they would be able to afford it and that it was close they all jumped on board. Hopefully I'll be able to plan another clinic in the future. Thanks so much for your help and I'll keep you updated.

On June 9 I thought of La Palma at least a hundred times.

June 16
The response was absolutely HUGE! I had people will appointments arrive on time along with a huge number of people who just showed up. In total we were able to spay or neuter 20 animals and we had to turn 8 away. The vet is coming back next Wednesday to spay and neuter 15 more. Also, on the day of the clinic someone brought their dog who had been attacked by a wild animal and was bleeding severely. The vet was able to save the dogs life after 2 hours. Had the vet not been in La Palma that day, the dog would have suffered a slow death, as it was, it's life was saved (I have pics of this too which I will send just as soon as I can access a computer and have my camera). It was incredible. The entire day I was sharing I love my pet stories with Costa Ricans and they really showed me that it was their lack of access, not love that had prevented them from controlling the pet population. I will send you a breakdown of how the money was spent (there were some people who could not afford the medications for after the surgery so I covered it for them so the animals would be taken care of). I'll write you more tomorrow, I just wanted to let you know that everything went great and in the end 35 animals will be fixed. I can't tell you excited all the people are and I can see a great future for the animals.

June 17
Okay, so here are some numbers: We were able to spay 20 animals, 10 female dogs, 2 female cats, 2 male cats and 6 male dogs. The donation sponsored 13 dollars worth of antibiotics for a family that could not afford the medications.

I did almost all of the promotions by posting some flyers and word or mouth. I went around and told people that I saw with animals about the clinic and the word began to spread. I had lots of people calling me and made some appointments and had walk-ins as well. We held the clinic in the Salon of the Catholic church where they open it up for free use to the community.

Here was the set up, for each animal $13 was used to supplement the cost which is $17. After talking further with the vet we decided that people would be able to pay $4 per castration plus medications which was also around $4. By doing this we will be able to spay or neuter 15 more animals covering for each of them the $13. Last week we used a total of $269.97 and will use the rest of the donation this Wednesday.

The vet was exhausted but so happy after the clinic. He was able to save a dog from animal attack wounds and spay or neuter 20 animals. There was such a high demand I think he was really surprised. We have talked about him coming back once a month for the next year (at least) that I'm in La Palma and I'm hoping that things will be going so well that he will continue to hold the clinics and see animals in La Palma. I think it was the beginning of a really good thing.

I would absolutely love it if you could find more funding for more clinics. I have seen that a little really goes a long way. $269 was able to help 20 animals, in the US it seems like that's the cost for just one animal. Also, I think it is a big step in people beginning to value their animals. As it is now there are just so many everywhere that the attitude is who cares, there's always another. I feel like this could change that (hopefully). Please tell your friends that this was a huge success, people came to clinic and shared with each other and me how much they love their animal and all of the things they do for their animal. They were able to buy pet food and flea medications and soaps. It was really fun to see old men with their cats talking about the cat sleeping in the bed with him and older ladies with their little dogs talking to them in funny voices. As the animals were waking up the owners were so concerned and huddled over their animal whispering to them and petting them. It was really sweet to see the animals being so cared for.

Again, thank you and if any of your friends are interested in helping please let me know, I would love to make more clinics happen. I have more info and plan to sit down and write a blog about the event as soon as I have some time (I hope tomorrow).

So that's the story, and here we are now.

I am doing the fundraiser.

This is what I want:

Five dollars. $5.
If you want to send more we would force ourselves to take it.

Here is how you can get it to me:

1. A check made out to "Castrado Clinic"

Or, if you are too embarrassed to make out a check for such a project with such a name:

2. Cash

You can send your contributions to:

Judy Bradshaw
3722 SE Woodward Street
Portland, Oregon 97202

Your reward: nothing. It's not tax deductible.

Your reward is nothing...and no one will ever thank you except me and Laura and the people of La Palma and the female animals. (The males will take a little longer to come around...after they find out their lives are happier without compulsions and infected wounds.) 

I did consider running an "adopt a spay" campaign in which Laura would take a photo of your animal with its legs spread and its private parts exposed which you could frame and hang on your wall as evidence of your generosity...an idea I now find to be insensitive. I mean how would you feel if this were done to you? And these poor animals have never been exposed to the idea of spaying and neutering, unlike our own animals who hear it through the grapevine of those who have gone before. The La Palma animals are pioneers. We have to allow them their dignity. 

If you decide to mortgage your house to support the clinic though I am sure we can work something out with the Catholic Church so your time in purgatory will be reduced. 

So...no photo. I'm sorry. You get nothing.

So that's the pitch. We want money.

The animals save us, and now it is our time to save them.
You can do this, yes you can.
We can do this, yes we can.


Judy Bradshaw

01 July 2010

El Salvador Field Updates

(Note: Over the next couple of months, we'll be posting updates from Josh Baugh, a student at DePauw University who is interning with FUNZEL, one of El Salvador's leading conservation groups. SEE Turtles has helped fund Josh's work.  Follow along on his blog.)

Upon arriving in Puerto Parada, the one port that launches boats into the Bahia de Jiquilisco I came to realize that soon I would be on my own without mike to translate for me or talk on my behalf. The time needed to come however. There in the port we parked at the codepa office (the local conservation organization that I work with) in order to give a gift to Cristobel, the president, who just had a baby. As we sat and talked with here and introduced her to me she quickly offered for me to live in her house on the island because in here eyes it was a rip off for me to live in a cabana where they aren't giving me the $5 a day discount they originally promised to do. Seeing that she had just had a baby however, she explained how she wouldn’t be on the island but her husband, Nefta and Aldo were living there. Nefta who works at the hatchery and is a fisherman was ok with this she said and so I agreed to stay with them. After eating some lunch there at the office, Chili, Mike, myself alongside Rene and Manuel who work for Codepa went out in the bay to show me around the office/dormitory at the hatchery. Just riding in the boat (rancha) I was able to get a glimpse of the beauty of the bay area. Stopping at the hatchery, Maricio spent awhile walking and talking with me about what is important to consider when running a hatchery.

After our tour we came back to the office where, I was introduced to Nefta whom I was to go stay with. Mike fortunately, introduced me but still I could no understand a word that he said. The dialect takes time to get used to I hear and gets thicker with age as I have noticed. Yet, I got on a boat with him nonetheless and soon we were on our way to the island. The first thing he asked me on the boat was could I drive a boat. To him it was ridiculous that at my age I didn’t know how and so he quickly took it upon himself to teach me and I drove the rest of the way once we got into open water. Once I got onto the island I was quite surprised just how rustic the conditions were and just how completely oriented to fishing a village could be. When I got inside the house, and was told just to put my stuff next to the loveseat I thought ok that’s fine but I was unaware that I was going to be living quite literally in the living room. It is amazing how much they much to welcome me despite truly having the space for me. I don't know many people that would be welcoming to me living on their living room couch for two months. I soon found out however, that most nights I can go with Nefta to the hatchery where they sleep in hammocks and walk after it rains to look for turtles.  Also, if they see a tortuguero (egg harvester) they try to see that he donates some of the eggs even though he is not forced to do so at the moment.

Since that Sunday night I have been living at their house and have slept in a hammock all but last night during which I slept in a tent on the floor of the hatchery so that I would not get eaten alive by mosquitoes like I have been the last few nights. As of right now my body is covered in bites. Other than that all is well! Right now I am at this meeting for all the directors of hatcheries in the eastern portion of the country. I have learned so much today and just thus far. My Spanish is coming along ok but that has proven to be the biggies problem outside of the bugs. All the other aspects of living in primitive conditions I have been able to deal with. More to come on the meeting and other news!

25 June 2010

The Terrestrial Side of Talamanca, Costa Rica

Our group’s last couple of days in the Caribbean focused on the terrestrial side. Thursday we visited the most productive organic farm I’ve ever visited, Punta Mona. After college, I spent an idyllic few months as a volunteer at Punta Mona, helping the owner, Stephen Brooks, get the farm going with a group of friends. That time ignited an interest in sustainable agriculture that continues today as I work to turn my entire yard into a garden.

In the ten years since I worked at Punta Mona, the place has gone from a fairly productive farm with 20 or so varieties of food to a super-productive farm with more than 200 species of fruit trees alone. Literally everything growing in this place has some sort of value, whether medicinal, nutritional, spiritual, or cultural. Our group has never tasted, smelled, or adorned ourselves with so many natural items in one short span. Our tour guide, Richard, the farm manager, overwhelmed every one of our senses on this hike.

Stephen is one of the most interesting characters you will ever meet. In addition to founding the farm years ago, he also started a student ecotravel company called Costa Rican Adventures (now sold to others and with whom I did my first tour guiding) and more recently started an organic food company called Kopali Organics. Look for them at natural food stores (I recommend the chocolate covered Gogi berries). His passion for sustainability and plants is contagious and his vision is inspiring.

The next morning, we met Tino, in my opinion Costa Rica’s best nature guide, despite the hard time he gives me every time we go into the forest with a group. He took us into the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, an incredible piece of land at the very southernmost point along the Caribbean coast, which he helped to create about 20 years ago. In a relatively short hike, he showed us 5 sloths, several howler monkeys, four snakes, dozens of interesting trees and plants, and more. Its no wonder he was mentioned by name in a recent New York Times article about the region.

Earlier, while visiting the community of Soki in the Bribri Indigenous Reserve, I spoke with one of our hosts who works with a local cooperative called APPTA (Association of Small Producers of Talamanca) that he worked with to sell his organic cacao beans and bananas. I had heard of APPTA’s work in the region and put in a call to a contact I had made years before about touring their cacao processing plant, which we did after the nature hike.

There, our host Walter Rodriguez, told us how the cacao produced in this region was developing a reputation as one of the best in the world; a recent shipment was sent to the high end chocolate company Theo in Seattle. We toured their facility, where they ferment and dry the beans for exportation. He also showed us a nursery where they are cultivating more productive trees for members of the cooperative.

Walter told us of meeting an indigenous man years before while working with Asociacion ANAI, a regional conservation organization who also originally started the turtle project in Gandoca. This man walked 7 hours round trip to deliver a few pounds of cacao seeds to a store and received enough money for 2 bags of salt in exchange. Walter realized that cacao could be a way to help these forgotten communities out of poverty and helped to create APPTA. Now, according to Walter, APPTA has more than 1,200 members in 40 indigenous communities around the region, who make their living producing organic foods such as cacao, bananas, and other fruits. Their entire production of cacao is spoken for; in fact they could increase their production ten-fold and still not have any left over.  The new trees they are producing are about 30 times more productive, which is good news for chocolate lovers everywhere!

Anyone needing to see some good news in the world after the oil spill should take a visit to this region to see (and smell and taste) what progress can be made when dedicated people work towards protecting wildlife and communities. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in this area over the past decade, every visit brings new experiences and new inspiration to continue working to support our friends in Costa Rica. We hope to show you these incredible places on our next trip!

-Brad Nahill

PS- More and better pictures to be posted soon!

24 June 2010

Hawksbill turtle release in Costa Rica

On our first full day in Costa Rica a couple of weeks ago, we ran into an old friend of ours named Susana Schick, who was our neighbor when my wife and I lived in this area working with a local leatherback turtle project.  We let her know that SEE Turtles was funding the release a couple of rehabilitated hawksbill turtles through our partners at WIDECAST Latin America.  Susana, who has a long history of doing environmental education in this region, immediately started working on bringing her daughter's class from the local elementary school in Puerto Viejo.

The plan came to fruition this morning.  As we bumped along the dirt road leading north from town, we saw a group of 12 students in the two-toned blue uniforms happily walking along a beach.  I'm not sure if they were more excited about seeing the turtles or the fact that they had escaped the classroom for a rare field trip, but either way, we had a fun group ready to learn.

We introduced our group, made up of my and my two sister's families and my mom to the kids and gathered around our rental van to give them an impromtu slide show on sea turtles that I had on my computer.  Randall, from the Seahorse Aquarium in Limon, soon arrived with the two hawksbills that we were going to release.  These gorgeous turtles were confiscated by the police and given to Randall to nurse back to health in his aquarium.

Randall then spoke to the kids about the local situation of these critically endangered turtles and why its important to protect them.  Susana did a quick poll before the presentation of how many of the kids had tried turtle meat; all but two raised their hands.  Eating turtles in this region has been common for generations; hopefully we are beginning the process of changing minds with activities like this.  Each kid, both local and foreign, had a chance to touch the shells of the turtles before being released.  Two brave young boys volunteered for the honor of releasing them and all of the kids helped keep them hydrated with water as they walked to the ocean.