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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Environmental news, brace yourselves. It's good. It's about sea turtles known as Oliver Ridleys, highly endangered. But now in Mexico, thanks to a 20-year ban on turtle harvesting and the efforts of a local veterinarian, the Oliver Ridleys are coming back.

Here's NPR's Marina Giovannelli.

MARINA GIOVANNELLI: Forty-eight-year-old Marcelino Lopez Reyes 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. Recently on a busy night during nesting season, he left the turtle eggs alone. When Reyes returned on his all-terrain vehicle, he was outraged.

Dr. MARCELINO LOPEZ REYES (Veterinarian): (Through translator) I arrived. And you know what? They've stolen the camp, about six turtle nests. People that know us, that know we're here. They saw one ATV leave and then another leave, and they came and stole six nests I had buried the day before.

GIOVANNELLI: Reyes says the poachers stole about 600 eggs. They'll probably be sold on a street or in a cantina for about three U.S. dollars per dozen. Local appetite and international demand for turtle meat, eggs and skin have endangered Mexico's marine turtles.

Poachers are constantly on the prowl and so is Reyes. He rides a shiny red ATV along the ocean's edge, headlights blazing into the night, looking for nests. He's found a turtle laying her eggs. This one looks to be about 100 pounds. Her eyes are wet and teary and she grunts with effort.

Reyes counts the eggs, taking them from the nests and placing them in a plastic bag. She's laid more than a hundred eggs, and Reyes hurries back to his camp where he keeps the eggs safe. He digs a hole about a hundred feet from the water. Lock posts and mesh wire enclose about 6,000 turtle eggs. 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 beach patrol.

Dr. REYES: (Through translator) It was a big turtle. It came up on the beach and the dogs attacked it. They got it in the jugular, turned around and around, and it bled to death.

GIOVANNELLI: Reyes extracted about 50 eggs from the turtle's belly. When they hatched, Reyes took the turtles to the nearby government-sponsored Mexican turtle center. That's where he works during the day as a veterinarian. The turtle center's staff found the best protection for turtles is to create alternative employment for their human predators. It's located near the old turtle slaughterhouse called Mazunte. And some of those who used to make a living from the turtle trade now work to protect the animals.

Mr. EVERARDO RAMIREZ (Tourist Guide): (Through translator) Yes, we would capture turtles. We would get about 60 turtles every trip. We would sell them to people who exported them to Mazunte.

GIOVANNELLI: That's Everardo Ramirez. Now instead of hunting turtles he works as a guide, taking tourists to see the turtles.

Mr. RAMIREZ: (Through translator) Well, it's better for me now. Now I'm working to save them instead of killing them, and taking tourists to see nature, to see that there are turtles that are prehistoric animals. People end up happy and so do I because I earn some money.

GIOVANNELLI: And while the turtles are again beginning to thrive, nesting on Oaxaca's beaches has grown from 55,000 turtles 20 years ago to over one million in 2003. Locals aren't without their regrets. Before poaching eggs became a crime in 1990, Mexicans like Esteban de la Cruz would buy them at street markets. Now he's left savoring a memory.

Mr. ESTEBAN DE LA CRUZ: (Through translator) You make a small hole, you 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.

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

Marina Giovannelli, NPR News.

CHADWICK: Actual turtle vigilante video at npr.org.

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