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Sea turtles, people of Zihuatanejo face difficult times on Mexico’s west coast: guest post

Sea turtles, people of Zihuatanejo face difficult times on Mexico’s west coast: guest post

This guest post was written by Andy Coleman, program director for the Birmingham Audubon Society and freelance herpetologist. He can be reached atandycoleman@birminghamaudubon.org.

Retired schoolteacher Damaris Marin-Smith didn’t intend to become a conservation advocate for endangered animals when she and her husband acquired vacation property in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, a desired destination for sport fisherman, tourists, and endangered sea turtles who use the miles of sandy beaches to lay their nests.

But now, Damaris’ vacation home has transformed into a conservation compound that rescues turtle eggs in danger of being poached and raises the hatchlings to be released.

Sea turtles released off the coast of MexicoSea turtle hatchlings released from the Campamento Tortuguero Ayoltcalli conservation facility in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. (Courtesy Andy Coleman)

Like Damaris, sea turtles have played a prominent role in my adult life. I first began studying turtles at UAB in 2005. Since then, my scientific fascination and concern have taken me to beaches all along the Gulf Coast to observe and study these marine reptiles. These turtles were the reason I boarded an international flight last week bound for Zihuataenejo to help Damaris and her crew of eager volunteers, a colorful group, many touched by the deep poverty of the area, who found a passion and a purpose in saving sea turtles.

There are seven species of sea turtles worldwide, and three of those seven (olive ridley, green, and leatherback sea turtles) nest on the beaches around Zihuataenejo.  Although the exact number of nests produced by each of the three species on these beaches is unknown, olive ridleys produce vastly more nests than the other two species (approximately 700-900 olive ridley nests compared to only a handful of nests for the other two species).

Olive ridleys are considered the most abundant species of sea turtle, but that does not mean its survival is secure. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) considers the breeding population of olive ridleys on the Pacific coast of Mexico to be endangered. The Eastern Pacific population of leatherback sea turtles are in much worse shape. According to NMFS, the Mexican portion of this population has been depleted to less than one percent of its historical level.

Five years ago, Damaris wanted to do something to help the sea turtles nesting on the beaches around her property, so she started Campamento Tortuguero Ayoltcalli. Campamento Tortuguero translates from Spanish to Turtle Camp, and Ayoltcalli, which means Sea Turtle House, comes from the local Nuahatl dialect, a dialect descended from the ancient Aztec civilization.

Young local volunteers began showing up after learning about the organization from family, friends, or social media, and they wanted to help. Over the years, Damaris has overseen the construction of the camp, which mainly consists of an open-walled hut and a small bunk house. The Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa area has long been a national and international tourism destination, but the reputation of the area has recently taken a hit because of perceived drug cartel violence.

This has negatively impacted the local economy, and even without this downturn, there is widespread poverty in the area. The majority of the local volunteers I met during my trip have been affected by this poverty. Some only have low-paying, part-time jobs, while others don’t have one at all.

I first met Damaris at an international sea turtle meeting held last November in Brownsville, Texas. The conference was focused on the biology and conservation of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, but because it was so close to her home in Houston, Damaris attended hoping to find some assistance. I heard her speak at a public forum held during the conference, and her sincerity left an impression.  She made an impassioned plea, saying she was a teacher, and she was giving all she could to the conservation efforts of the turtles nesting in her area.

As a son of two retired school teachers, I decided I could at least learn more about her organization to see if I could provide any support. After exchanging a few emails, Damaris expressed her and her volunteers’ excitement about starting a scientific collaboration with me to study the nesting populations in their area. We decided to begin with attaching flipper tags to nesting females and studying nest incubation temperatures using temperature data loggers.

I traveled down to Zihuataenejo on July 22 for five days. During the 2014-2015 nesting season, Campamento Tortuguero Ayoltcalli protected 700 olive ridley nests, so I thought four nights would provide ample opportunity to teach the volunteers how to tag nesting sea turtles. The tags, provided to me by the National Marine Fisheries Service, are metal tags similar to cattle tags that have a unique code that can be used to identify individuals at future nesting events.  This allows scientists to track an individual’s growth, survivorship, and reproductive output, all of which have important biological and conservation implications.

Normally, Damaris and her team monitor five kilometers of beach north of camp and ten kilometers of beach south of camp.  However, they usually have access to a four wheeler to help with the monitoring. During my visit, the four wheeler was in the shop, which meant we would only be able to monitor the north section of the beach by foot. Walking ten kilometers is usually no tall task, but walking 10 kilometers in soft sand makes that task tougher. Walking 10 kilometers in soft sand while carrying a pack in 80-90 percent humidity is downright miserable, but the volunteers routinely do this because the four wheeler often breaks down. Salt water can be tough on vehicles.

Even though I had awakened at 3:30 a.m. to catch the first leg of my journey to Zihuatanejo, I was energized to begin my first night of monitoring at 11:30 p.m. I felt confident that we would come across at least two or three females, but we ended the first night of monitoring without a single turtle sighting. However, it was not a total loss. We did recover two olive ridley nests, and the eggs – about 175 total – were recovered and brought to camp. In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has domain over sea turtle nesting. They instruct sea turtle conservation groups that monitor the many miles of nesting beaches in the U.S. to leave the nests in the original location and only relocate them if they are in imminent danger of being damaged or washed away.

Poaching of sea turtle nests, though, is not a real threat in this country. The same cannot be said of many nesting beaches in other parts of the world, including Zihuatanejo. In 2013, a 26-year-old sea turtle conservationist in Costa Rica was allegedly murdered by members of a local drug cartel when he tried to stop their poaching activities. All seven suspects were found not guilty due to the ineffectiveness of the prosecutors.

There is a good chance that both nests encountered on that first night would have been poached if the team had not recovered them. In fact, while we were recovering the second nest, I noticed a plastic bottle cap that had appeared to have been placed neatly on the surface above where the nest was laid.  I showed it to Damaris, who said poachers were most likely spooked by our presence and placed the cap there to remind themselves where it was in case we missed it. Once we had finished monitoring the beach at 3:00 a.m., the nests needed to be reburied in the protected nest corral that is located by the camp.  The nest corral has room for more than 150 nests and will be filled several times this year.

Another portion of our study is to examine the incubation temperatures of the nest corral using temperature data loggers. Sea turtles, like other reptiles, display temperature-dependent sexual determination. In turtles, warmer temperatures produce more females. By studying the incubation temperatures of the corral, we can better understand the sex ratios produced in the many nests protected in the corral.

Even with the late night, we had scheduled a turtle hatchling release for 7 a.m.  These hatchlings were from an early season nest, and they were ready to begin the long journey to their offshore habitats where they’ll spend their first few years. The public is often invited to participate when Damaris and her team release hatchlings, and they use this as an opportunity to educate the public about sea turtle conservation.

Mexican authorities don’t allow them to charge the public for the chance to personally release hatchlings, but they can ask for donations and offer souvenirs for sale. Although this does not generate a great deal of money, it is a major source of income for the organization. And, it is easy to see the impact that these releases can have on the participants. Young and old alike marvel as the small hatchlings crawl down the beach to the open water.

For the second night, I suggested that we start our walk earlier so we could take advantage of the bright moonlight and hopefully stand a better chance of encountering a turtle. We finished monitoring the north section without finding a turtle or nest that night, but during the walk, I learned more about the volunteers from Damaris. Several of the volunteers do not have their high school diploma, but it’s not because they wanted to quit.

In Mexico, many public schools require families to purchase materials, such as uniforms or books. Their families could not afford these items, so they could not stay in school. Without a high school diploma, it is difficult for some to find steady work.

She mentioned one particular volunteer who had the opportunity to travel with his father to a temporary job, but they would have to travel to the Gulf coast of Mexico. He decided not to go because he did not want to leave the turtles.  Damaris said that this volunteer spends a lot of time around camp so that he can have something to eat.

Once we got back to camp, we decided to monitor a short portion of the south section before we went to bed. As we were walking, I noticed a lump on the beach that was sure to be a turtle. But as we approached the animal, it was clear the turtle was dead. It is not abnormal for Damaris and her team to come across stranded sea turtles, so we noted the location and species.

However, we found out later from a neighbor that the turtle was most likely killed by local homeowner, either for personal consumption or for selling to others. During the non-peak nesting season, olive ridleys can be sold for 600 pesos. The same holds true for nest poachers – some use the eggs to feed their families, while others sell them to make money. Soon after leaving the dead turtle, we came across a nest that we were too late to save. Poachers had recently dug up the nest and taken all of the eggs.

The third night came and went with no turtles. We recovered three nests and documented a false crawl. A false crawl is when a female comes onto land and decides for whatever reason to return to the water without laying her nest. All too often, the female decides not to nest because of bright lights that shine on the beach and scare her back into the sea. Artificial lighting is also a major problem on too many nesting beaches in the U.S.

By the fourth night, I was getting nervous that I wouldn’t have a chance to encounter a turtle and teach the crew how tag females. I decided it would be better if we split into two groups. One group would walk the full stretch of the north section, while the other group would walk the first half of this section, which included the largest stretch of beach without any artificial lighting, multiple times. I was in this second group, and I felt that we would be the group to see the first turtle. The old adage, « If you want to hear God laugh, then tell Him your plans » also pertains to turtles.

As my group got back to the beginning of the north section to wait a few minutes before we walked it again, the camp leader, Marlet, got a phone call from the other group: a turtle was nesting on the far end of the north section. That was great news. The bad news was that they were about six miles away and it would take an hour to reach them. That would be too long to hold the turtle, and I feared our best chance of tagging might be lost.

Marlet had another idea. She offered the pick-up truck of another volunteer so that we could drive and make it to the end of the north section. Our group rushed to the pick-up truck, and I climbed in the truck bed with two German volunteers who were spending a few weeks at camp helping out. I had to chuckle to myself as I found myself at midnight on a Saturday night speeding down a Mexican highway in the back of pick-up truck trying to tag a sea turtle.  If I had not already earned my sea turtle biologist card, surely this would do it.

We eventually reached the other group and successfully tagged the turtle.  Everyone was relieved we had accomplished our goal, and the volunteers are excited to continue the project in the future.

As I reflect on my few days with Campamento Tortuguero Ayoltcalli, I am most impressed with Damaris and her volunteers’ dedication – to the turtles and to each other. Damaris created a conservation organization that is working to save sea turtles and inspire the public to help. But she also created a home for her volunteers where they can have a sense of family as well as pride in the great work that they do.

It makes me wonder who is getting the most benefit. Is it the volunteers that are saving the sea turtles or is it the sea turtles that are saving them? Either way, I feel lucky to now be a part of their group, and I look forward to helping them however I can.