Of Sea Turtles: A Cautionary Tale

When I was Mexico’s ambassador to the Netherlands in the ‘70s, the embassy received letters protesting the slaughter of sea turtles in my country.

Translated by Better Ferber

When I was Mexico’s ambassador to the Netherlands in the ‘70s, the embassy received letters protesting the slaughter of sea turtles in my country. I sent these letters on to our president, as they were addressed to him, but I only provoked his anger, for he thought it frivolous of me to be defending turtles when there were more important matters at hand, such as selling Mexico’s oil, uranium and natural gas.

When I returned to Mexico, I continued to hear about the massacre of turtles on the coasts of Oaxaca. I heard about the slaughterhouse at San Agustinillo, although the bureaucrats in the Fisheries Ministry and the conservationists assured me that everything was fine. And then one day in October of 1989, two women involved in a sea-turtle conservation program in Oaxaca came to see me and admitted what they had denied until then: that a merciless slaughter of olive ridley turtles was taking place at Escobilla; that they were tired of keeping their mouths shut; that the bureaucrats charged with protecting the turtles either did nothing or were in cahoots with the mafias who were killing the turtles; and that I had to write about what was going on. One of them pleaded with me, “Homero, only you could save the turtles!” They laid a thick sheaf of confidential reports on my table and promised to bring more.

Two days later we agreed on a strategy to save the sea turtle from extinction: First I would publish my articles in Mexico, and then foreign environmental groups would provide international support. I waded through hundreds of pages of reports from different parts of the country where sea turtles were killed to strip their skins and shells, steal their eggs or chop up their flesh. I saw photos of turtles being shot in the head or hacked to pieces with machetes, photos of a huge mound of shells behind the slaughterhouse, photos of dogs drinking from the streams of blood flowing from the murdered olive ridleys.

At last, the five articles came out in January 1990 in a Mexico City daily newspaper, La Jornada. Immediately afterward, Greenpeace in London and Earth Island Institute in San Francisco staged protests in front of the Mexican consulates. The president of Mexico received over 70,000 letters demanding an end to the slaughter, and there was talk of a tourist boycott. My telephone was cut off every Thursday and reconnected on Tuesday, only to go dead again two days later. Needless to say, my telephone was tapped on the days it was working. An American sea-turtle expert who came to see me was put under surveillance by the Ministry of the Interior.

As a writer I was blacklisted by all the official cultural bodies. The day the first article appeared, the Fisheries minister called me. She was furious because I had not simply passed all the information on to her, and she demanded that I reveal my sources, which were, she complained, much more reliable than her own.

There were turtles in the world before and after the dinosaurs. Seven of the world’s eight surviving species nest on Mexican beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The conservation of these species, living receptacles of the Earth’s natural history, constitutes a grave responsibility for the Mexican people. Although turtles have survived the major natural catastrophes that finished off other species, they may not survive human predation. Experience has shown that of all their predators—larvae, dogs, birds, fish—the most insidious and harmful is man.

All seven species are endangered, and, on paper, six were protected from capture, whereas capture of the seventh, the olive ridley, was partially banned, although any real control was nullified by a system of quotas and special permissions handed out by the Fisheries Ministry. The killing of sea turtles went on all year long. The olive ridley and the Kemp’s ridley, the hawksbill and the leatherback, the Pacific green turtle, the Atlantic green turtle and the Atlantic loggerhead were all at risk.

The biggest catches of hawksbills are in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, in Isla Mujeres and Cozumel in Quintana Roo, in Merida and Progreso in Yucatán and in Campeche. Although merchants and authorities alike were fully aware that it was illegal, the trade in tortoiseshell flourished. Approximately two and a half kilos of usable shell were taken from each adult turtle. All the sizable towns on the peninsula had shops selling craftwork, whole shells, skulls and dried turtles. As the biggest consumer of turtle skins and shells in the world, Japan fomented the illegal trade in tortoiseshell, which they use in Japan for electronic circuits, eyeglass frames, fancy combs and traditional costumes.

Rancho Nuevo in Tamaulipas is of crucial importance for the nesting Kemp’s ridley, for it is the only known beach in the world where this rarest of turtles comes to lay its eggs. It is estimated that fewer than 1,000 turtles remain in the adult population, whereas in 1947, more than 40,000 turtles were counted on the beach in a single day. A considerable amount of money is being spent to save the Kemp’s ridley from extinction, and there is a cooperative agreement between Mexico and the United States. In the Gulf of Mexico, both the Kemp’s ridley and the hawksbill are further at risk from incidental capture in the nets of shrimpers and fishermen.

Perhaps my generation will be the last in Mexico to see the leatherback, for this species, the largest in existence (weighing between 100 and 200 kilos) was seriously threatened by the wide-scale poaching of its nests and the slaughter of the females on the beaches of Michoacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

Escobilla, in Oaxaca, is the principal nesting beach for the olive ridley, the site of the greatest number of mass turtle arrivals and where most hatchlings are born. During the nesting season, beyond the waterline, each female digs a hole in the sand into which she lays 90 to 100 golf-ball-size eggs. The hatchlings push their way out of the sand 40 to 45 days later and instinctively begin to crawl toward the sea. But before this can happen, the nests are in constant danger of being looted by poachers or ravaged by maggots, fungi, crabs, beetles, dogs and birds. Only a few hatchlings will make it back to the sea, and of these, an even smaller number (perhaps two or three out of the nest of 100) will reach reproductive age and the culmination of their migratory route in the procreation of the species.

Although the sale of turtle eggs has been forbidden by presidential decree throughout Mexico, poaching takes place in every state with a coastline, from Sinaloa to Chiapas, from Quintana Roo to Tamaulipas. Every year approximately 10 million eggs are sold all over the country, largely a result of the legal and illegal slaughter of the females. A well-organized network of buyers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers exists. Improved communications along the coast have contributed to more intensive poaching than in the ‘70s.

The thieves from Escobilla and environs would stuff up to a thousand eggs into a sack, swarming over the beaches at night or at dawn, occasionally accompanied by the very marines charged with guarding the eggs. During the arribazones, or mass nestings oftens of thousands of turtles, the Fisheries inspector and the marines would take bribes in exchange for not patroling the beach, giving the thieves a free hand to steal as many eggs as they could. The going price per egg was 50 pesos, making a total of some 500 million pesos for 10 million eggs, or $57,000 at the time. But in the markets of Mexico City, each egg was selling for 1,500 pesos, bringing in some 4,500 million pesos, or the equivalent of $1,307,700. A tidy business for the middlemen but not for the fishermen or the thieves.

The Fisheries Ministry set a legal quota of 20,000 olive ridley turtles for all eight fishing cooperatives for the 1989-1990 season. This amounted to one sixth of the turtle s entire estimated adult population. The capture began on August 15, 1989, two weeks after the first nesting. By mid-December, 35,000 turtles had been killed in the slaughterhouse alone, not to mention an estimated clandestine capture of 50,000 more. A dozen pirate boats fished day and night right off the nesting beach, each one taking between 40 and 50 turtles per day, with no interference whatsoever from the navy patrols. After cutting off the front and rear flippers, the pirates would throw the still-living turtles back into the sea.

In Escobilla the 11 marines in the camp only patroled when the inspector ordered them to, usually because a visit from the state delegate was expected. As they received only 2,000 pesos (less than $1) a day for food, they supplemented their diet with turtle eggs and complained they lacked the strength to patrol the beach. The center of the olive-ridley trade was in Cacalotepec, and every other day a truck came from Mexico City to take away the skins. Every restaurant on the beach at Puerto Angel had turtle meat and womb eggs on the menu. The San Agustinillo slaughterhouse was at Mazunte, a few kilometers from Escobilla. The whole turtle was used, and the jobs at the slaughterhouse included unloading the animals, the slaughter itself, carrying away the shells, meat and flippers, putting the eggs and innards in sacks, cleaning the skins and the meat, chopping it up, grinding the shell, and making flour from the egg shells.

Every morning the fishermen brought olive ridleys for slaughter. Brutally piled up as if they were stones, one by one they would receive a .22-caliber shot in the head. On the beach they were killed with machetes or clubbed to death. Often the womb would be slit open to extract the eggs, and the turtle was left to die a slow death on the sand. Near the beach was a mountain of carapaces 25 meters high. The worst slaughter took place at sea, where the pirates would lop off the flippers for the skins or slash open the stomachs to remove the eggs. The bleeding, mutilated females frequently crawled up on the beach to die. Widespread corruption allowed the massacre to go on unhindered. Members of the cooperatives were paid 23,000 pesos (about $9) for each whole turtle, whereas the pirates were able to sell each pair of flippers for 40,000 pesos, almost twice that. A government-owned business bought and resold the skins, chiefly to Japan. The wholesale slaughter of turtles and the blatant illegal trade in turtle products was threatening the continued existence of all the sea turtles. This, then, was the situation when I published my articles.

The Fisheries Ministry initially reacted by denying my allegations and accusing me of exaggeration and misinformation, and worse yet in their eyes, of corroborating the position taken by American environmental groups. I replied that the wanton slaughter of the olive ridley and the theft of eggs was public knowledge on the Oaxaca coast. On April 20, the Group of 100 published a declaration addressed to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, signed by dozens of Mexican artists and intellectuals and supported by more than 100 international environmental organizations, conservation groups, universities and scientists. We called for an immediate end to the slaughter of thousands of sea turtles on Mexican coasts, the closing of the slaughterhouses and cessation of all trade in turtle products, as Mexico was one of the principal exporters of skins and tortoiseshell to Japan, in violation of our own laws. We argued that the real beneficiaries of this ignoble trade were, and always would be, a handful of unscrupulous individuals who, in the process of exploiting the turtles, exploited the fishermen as well.

Finally, on May 28, 1990, the president of Mexico decreed a total and permanent ban on the capture of sea turtles and the trade in sea-turtle species.

The next fall I visited Escobilla during the nesting season. It was almost midnight when, together with my wife, Betty, my daughter Eva and one of her friends, I ventured onto the beach, in the company of the very same Fisheries delegate I had denounced in my articles as corrupt. In the darkness the white waves bathed the beach. Beneath our feet crabs darted into their holes. It was easier to make out the turtle tracks on the sand if we turned off our flashlights. After walking for several kilometers, always keeping close together, we came upon the first tracks and followed them to the nesting female, who had already dug a hole and was laying her eggs. Gathered around the turtle in a circle, we carefully observed the egg laying, listening to the turtle panting, occasionally stroking her shell. We were conscious of how defenseless she was, how easily hurt. And then we watched as six more turtles appeared, deposited by waves onto the shore, and slowly advanced to dry sand, where they dug their holes, laid their eggs, and covered up the hole again, rocking back and forth on the sand to obliterate their own traces before they swung around and headed back to the sea, stopping every now and then before they disappeared into the ocean and the night.

The beach at Escobilla is still guarded by marines, and young biologists transplant some of the nests to a corral to protect them from predators. However, during two visits I made to Escobilla several years after the decree, I learned that almost all the nests between the arribazones are being poached, and that on all the other, unprotected beaches of Oaxaca and Michoacán, there is much poaching, as well.

At the abandoned slaughterhouse, which no longer reeked of death and destruction, I talked with a fisherman from the cooperative who complained that the government had not helped them to develop alternate ways to make a living. He wondered how long the fishermen would be able to honor the prohibition on catching turtles, referring to them as “greenbacks,” that is, money to be had for the taking. And when I was finally able to witness an arribazon and watch thousands of female turtles emerging from the sea, making their nests, laying their eggs, filling the beach at Escobilla as far as the eye could see, just off the shore all night long were three boats fishing for turtles.

In spite of the president s decree, sea turtles are still not safe. The Group of 100 is pushing for an international agreement that will protect the sea turtles along their migratory routes from Chile to Mexico and along the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. Without such an agreement, it will be impossible to ensure the survival of one of the most ancient animals on Earth, and it will be impossible to control the actions of its worst and most implacable predator: man. Thirty-five thousand endangered sea turtles are slaughtered off the coasts of Baja, California, each year, making its waters the most dangerous place for a sea turtle to swim anywhere in the world. Easter week is especially deadly for sea turtles. Last spring up to 5,000 turtles were murdered for the Easter dinners of affluent Mexicans in Tijuana, Hermosillo and Ensenada and were smuggled across the border to Mexican communities in San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson. Along with the Sea Turtle Conservation Network of the Californias, we have asked the Vatican to make an official statement that sea turtle is red meat, not fish or seafood, to save the lives of thousands more of these animals. No nation alone can guarantee the turtles will survive, but a single nation can destroy them.

About the Author

Homero Aridjis

Homero Aridjis is the author of Eyes to See Otherwise, a bilingual anthology of his poetry, and the prize-winning novel 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile (1991).

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