If you are over 50, have traveled a lot or lived in Mexico or Central America, particularly the coastal areas, you ate turtle. Sea Turtle is an awesome tasting seafood, whose bright-red, bloody meat would turn angel white just seconds after hitting a fry pan that was lightly seasoned in olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic.
Turtle meat and eggs are a delicacy and a way of life in many countries, including Costa Rica. The eggs are richer tasting than chicken eggs and packed in protein.
Chevy (nickname), a long time friend, remembers when growing up in San Juanillo (south of Tamarindo) in the late 1960s, his mom would send him and his little sister to the beach to get turtle eggs. They would come back with a basket filled within 15 to thirty minutes. When he got into his teen years and when he needed money, would fill up a bunch of baskets and sell them to local markets, restaurants and street vendors. Back in those days one dollar was worth around 6-7 colons. Chevy would sell a dozen eggs between 3 to four colones.
Nobody thought about conservation back then, but since the mid 1970s times have changed for the turtle. With worldwide eco-protection – now the demand for turtle and it’s eggs has increased to epidemic poaching!
- A few months ago, on eBay, hundreds of pieces of jewelry, shells and other products made from endangered sea turtles were found for sale on the Internet auction site. All of these items, including jewelry, guitar picks, cigarette cases and other decorative ornaments, were being sold through at least 30 separate eBay auctions.
- Acting on a tip, in late July, 2010, customs officials in Brunei (South East Asia) confiscated 4,150 illegal turtle eggs and arrested two men. It was the largest turtle egg seizure so far that year. Most of the eggs were from the Leatherback Turtle, which is on the Critically Endangered list.
- In Acapulco, in May, 2010, Mexican authorities seized nearly 6,000 sea turtle eggs and arrested two people. In August 2010, Mexican authorities caught six people with 3,756 illegally harvested eggs from the protected Olive Ridley turtle in the coastal town of Guerrero, east of the resort city of Acapulco.
In Mexico, the law is severe for those caught with turtle eggs, it is punishable by prison terms of one to nine years. The Mexican government began imposing $16,000 fines 20 years ago for killing turtles or trafficking their eggs. For a country that is overrun by drug traffickers and whose the country has one of the highest rates of turtle poaching in the world, they also have some of the stiffest penalties for poaching.
Like the drug trade only a fraction of poachers are caught, and because of this, it is unclear of what the real statistics are of poaching turtle eggs.
Unfortunately Costa Rica does not have the same laws to protect their turtle, nor do they have the press releases of catching poachers. According to Sea Turtle Restoration, poaching on any Central American turtle beaches (and perhaps the world) is close to 100%. Even the protected areas like Costa Rica has, poaching in the Guanacaste region is 95% and on the Pacific Central in places like Esterillos it is 98%.
In 1983, the Costa Rican government created the Ostional Wildlife Refuge in Ostional, located on the Guanacaste Peninsula, and later initiated the Egg Harvest Project (EHP). The EHP allowed villagers – organized in a cooperative – to continue their traditional practice of harvesting eggs while furthering the long-term goal of assisting in the conservation and recovery of the Olive Ridley turtle species. This program has greatly increased the population of the Olive Ridley turtle.
The Costa Rica government also granted Ostional the right to sell turtle eggs, whose proceeds help conversation programs like the EHP. Selling is limited to around 38,000 eggs per nesting AND that selling is only to the people of Costa Rica. Tens of thousands of turtles lay their eggs in the Ostional Wildlife Refuge every year, laying an estimated 4 million eggs and that is ONLY one small area.
It is a debated whether or not this has encouraged the illegal harvesting of turtle eggs, which could be a major threat to all species of marine turtle. People became outraged back in Feb, 2010 when photos circulated in emails showing villagers harvesting (or stealing) eggs by the bag fulls. Recently there was an article with a few links in AM Costa Rica. explaining the pros on harvesting.
Unlike Mexico’s turtle laws, Costa Rica’s law is geared toward the locals because of cultural habits. Most of the older generation of Costa Ricans will tell you that turtle eggs were traditionally slurped in bars from a shot glass, uncooked and mixed with salsa and lemon. Like Chevy, you went out with your friends or family and dug up the eggs. Even nowadays, there is nothing wrong with having a few turtle eggs in your possession, and normally if caught with a bunch, your fine is to share those eggs with the policeman. There is no jail time.
When I asked Chevy about the law, he laughed, “¿Qué ley” (What law?) and explained, a few weeks ago a fewof his friends were caught with a few thousand turtle eggs. His friends ended up splitting the shipment with the two officers.
However, for a foreigner to be caught ‘poaching’ eggs, expect (unlike the severity of Mexican law) a fine of a few dollars and/or a night in jail. If you defend yourself, claiming those eggs were from Ostional, chances are you can go your merry way.No doubt the harvesting in Ostional has helped stabilize the population of the Olive Ridley sea turtle, but under the aegis of the permit to sell. God only knows how many bags of eggs have found their way to the black market. Other words, a lot of bags are stamped to resemble the Ostional stamp of approval, but no one checks to see if it is the real stamp or just a forgery.
Many have claimed the government has, in essence, legalized poaching all over Costa Rica; Who’s goin’ to question, “What beach have the turtle eggs come from? And “If the eggs were legally or illegally harvested?” And “If the eggs are going to the local economy or to the oversea one?”
With the increase of worldwide conservation, the largest demand for turtle eggs is for their supposed aphrodisiac effects, just like rhino horns or bears livers are. The largest market is in the Asia countries. In Costa Rica, sea turtle eggs are also considered the ultimate aphrodisiac. Today, you’ll find them in local bars, restaurants and markets that are off the beaten path, far from most tourist areas. And during the nesting season, roadside stands offer them by the bucket full for $2 per egg, which has also outraged Costa Ricans.
The demand for black marketed turtle eggs has inflated local sales by 500%, if not more.
The problem is not Costa Rica’s culture and tradition, but the horny greed of the Asia market (like shark fins), the demand for turtle eggs can cost from $100-$300 USD per egg. And with Costa Rica now becoming the new hub for drug trafficking, it is easy to see how the smugglers have added turtle eggs to their list. The market can be profitable as drug smuggling, but nowhere close to the high risk.
I asked Chevy, “How widespread is the [overseas] poaching?"
He smiled back, “It’s like a strong wind, you can’t see it, but you can sure as hell feel and see the effects of it.”
He feels the effects in his pocketbook and taste as the local market dwindles for something that was readily available and cheap! And the government should take more steps to combat poaching.
It is common street talk that turtle sanctuaries have made deals with commercial poachers who sell to traffickers. They give them X amount of eggs; in return the poachers will not steal or just plain old fashion bribery and extortion. Egg collecting and selling is illegal unless you have a permit; to get around this, these sanctuaries give the poachers a receipt, so in fact they can “legally” resell those eggs to “whomever” they please.
There is no real regulatory enforcement and/or authority to competently oversee the number of eggs sold/collected due to lack of funds, resources, and manpower. Literally millions of eggs find their way overseas.