Sea Turtles Might Be Threatened, But So Are Their Hunters

In Mexico, turtle egg thieves can go to prison for up to nine years. As a new film shows, that doesn’t stop them from stealing.

WATCH: Mexican marines patrol beaches to prevent people from stealing turtle eggs, but many do so anyway. The eggs are sold in nearby markets and appear on restaurant menus.

This phenomenon, called arribada, also brings out local egg hunters. In Morro Ayuta, a beach on the Pacific coast of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, they snatch up the golf-ball-size eggs to sell to vendors in nearby markets for up to about a dollar apiece—a tidy sum for poor villagers. People consider the eggs a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, and they appear on the menus in local restaurants.

Filmmaker John Dickie spent two weeks in the area exploring the practice. He documented it in “Stealing Turtle Eggs Got People Shot, But The Theft Continues,” the first film produced for National Geographic as part of its pilot series of investigative mini documentaries. “I wanted to do a film that kind of covered both sides of it,” Dickie told our Special Investigations Unit. “I just felt that it made an amazing story.”

And a complex one. On the one hand, poachers threaten the turtles. The species once hovered on the brink of extinction in Mexico, but conservation measures and a government crackdown on poaching has helped increase the population.

People who violate Mexico’s 1990 ban on sea turtle hunting can face up to nine years in prison. Or worse: One man interviewed in the film said he quit poaching after a marine shot him. From July to mid-September 2015, authorities seized a reported 14,000 eggs in Morro Ayuta and the neighboring beach of Escobilla, and one person was detained.

The numbers of olive ridley turtles have halved since the 1960s, because of poaching and incidental capture in fishing gear. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the species as a whole as “vulnerable,” meaning they’re at a high risk of extinction. But the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service categorizes olive ridley turtles that breed in the Pacific coast of Mexico as “endangered.”
For villagers, poaching turtle eggs provides a source of income they can’t find elsewhere. “There’s no work,” says one man featured in the documentary. “If there were jobs, why the hell would I come and do this?”

The egg hunters say that as long as the market thrives, they’ll keep finding and selling eggs—unless the government can offer them an alternative. “The people there get a bad reputation because they’re painted as criminals for stealing the eggs,” Dickie says. “I think that’s pretty unfair. These are rural, poor communities.”

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback and story ideas to