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Vigilante Safeguards Oaxaca's Sea Turtles
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Vigilante Safeguards Oaxaca's Sea Turtles

Environment

Vigilante Safeguards Oaxaca's Sea Turtles

Vigilante Safeguards Oaxaca's Sea Turtles
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The turtles typically lay about 100 eggs in a nest about a foot deep. The eggs are considered a delicacy in Mexico and are vulnerable to poachers. Marina Giovannelli, NPR hide caption

Video of turtle laying eggs. Note: Graphic depiction of nesting.
toggle caption Marina Giovannelli, NPR
turtle lays eggs i

Olive ridley turtles lay their eggs at night on Oaxaca's beaches. Marina Giovannelli, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Marina Giovannelli, NPR
turtle lays eggs

Olive ridley turtles lay their eggs at night on Oaxaca's beaches.

Marina Giovannelli, NPR
veterinarian and his ATV i

Veterinarian and turtle vigilante Marcelino Lopez Reyes patrols the beaches on his all terrain vehicle looking for nests. Marina Giovannelli, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Marina Giovannelli, NPR
veterinarian and his ATV

Veterinarian and turtle vigilante Marcelino Lopez Reyes patrols the beaches on his all terrain vehicle looking for nests.

Marina Giovannelli, NPR
poacher turned tourist guide i

Everardo Ramirez used to hunt turtles. Now he makes a living by taking tourists to see turtles on his power boat. Marina Giovannelli, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Marina Giovannelli, NPR
poacher turned tourist guide

Everardo Ramirez used to hunt turtles. Now he makes a living by taking tourists to see turtles on his power boat.

Marina Giovannelli, NPR

Local appetite, along with international demand for turtle meat, eggs and skin, have landed Mexico's six species of marine turtles on the country's endangered species list.

But endangered sea turtles are making a comeback in Oaxaca, a state at the southern tip of Mexico's Pacific coast. Turtle-nesting on one of Oaxaca's beaches is surging, up from 55,000 turtles nesting in 1988 to more than 1 million in 2003.

Laws have helped, and so have the efforts of local veterinarian Marcelino Lopez Reyes.

Reyes, 48, is a veterinarian by day and a turtle vigilante by night. He sleeps on the beach, guarding turtle nests against poachers. But there's no guarantee the eggs are safe.

One busy night during nesting season, Reyes and his two helpers left the turtle nests unguarded. When Reyes returned on his all-terrain vehicle, he was outraged.

"I came back and, you know what, they had stolen six nests. People that know us, that know we're here. They saw that one ATV left, then the other ATV left, and they came and took the eggs," Reyes says.

The poachers stole about 600 eggs. They will probably be sold on the street or in a cantina for about three U.S. dollars per dozen.

Safeguarding Through Theft

Poachers are constantly on the prowl, and so is Reyes. He rides a shiny-red ATV along the ocean's edge, headlights blearing into the night, looking for nests.

Reyes finds an olive ridley turtle laying her eggs. She's huge, weighing about 100 pounds. Olive ridley turtles also live and breed along Africa, India and Indonesia's coasts. They return to the same beaches where they were born to lay their own eggs. This turtle's eyes are wet and teary and she grunts with effort.

Reyes counts the eggs, taking them from the nest and placing them in a plastic bag. She's laid more than 100 eggs, and Reyes hurries back to his camp where he keeps the eggs safe. Log posts and mesh wire enclose about 6,000 turtle eggs in the camp.

Reyes digs a hole about 100 feet from the water. When it's deep enough, he lowers in the plastic bag, gently empties the eggs, covers them with sand and marks the new nest.

Reyes also protects turtles from natural predators. Once he found an injured turtle during a morning patrol.

"It was a big turtle. It went up onto the beach and a dog attacked it. It got the turtle's jugular, it turned around and around, and it bleed to death," Reyes says.

Reyes extracted about 50 eggs from the turtle's belly. When they hatched, he took the turtles to the nearby government-sponsored Mexican Turtle Center. That's where he works during the day as a veterinarian.

Keeping Human Predators at Bay

The Mexican Turtle Center is located near the old turtle slaughterhouse known as Mazunte. The center's staff found the best protection for turtles is to create alternative employment for their human predators. Everardo Ramirez is a turtle hunter turned tourist guide.

"Yes, we used to hunt turtles. Each boat would get 60 turtles per day, from 6 a.m. to noon. We would sell them to Mazunte," Ramirez says.

Now instead of hunting them, Ramirez uses them to lure tourists.

"It's better for me now," Ramirez says. "Now I protect them, don't kill them. I take tourists to see nature and to see prehistoric animals. People end up happy, and so do I because I earn some money."

Poaching turtle eggs can land a person in federal prison, leaving Mexicans like Esteban de la Cruz savoring a memory.

"You make a small hole, put lemon and chili, and it is delicious. That's one of our pre-Hispanic dishes — before the Spanish arrived, our people would eat them," he says of the technique for eating the eggs.

And he says they're not only tasty, but considered an aphrodisiac — a claim that dies hard in the world of Mexican machismo.

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