Tortuga Rising

 

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ALTHOUGH GREEN SEA TURTLES have inhabited the Pacific coast of Mexico for millions of years, for the past few decades these ancient mariners (known locally as tortugas prietas or “black turtles”) have struggled to survive a relentless onslaught of hunting. As recently as the early 1980s, there were still some twenty-five thousand of their nests each year along the Mexican coast. But as demand grew for turtle meat and eggs in Mexico and across the U.S. border, turtle hunting multiplied exponentially. When the Mexican government outlawed the trafficking of sea turtles in 1990, turtle hunters were labeled poachers and smugglers overnight, but the practice continued. By the mid-1990s, poaching, fishing nets, and habitat pollution and destruction had caused the number of nesting females to drop to less than five hundred.

It was at this time that a doctoral student named Wallace J. Nichols proposed studying the biology and conservation of sea turtles in northwestern Mexico for his thesis, but was told that cultural inertia was too great to overcome and it was too late to even bother trying. Undeterred, Nichols and a colleague traveled to Baja California to study the five species of sea turtle that congregate on both sides of the peninsula’s nineteen hundred miles of coastline to feast on crab, jellyfish, sea sponges, and algae.

With the help of a fisherman and a Mexican biologist, Nichols attached a transmitter to a captured loggerhead’s shell. The turtle, named Adelita after the fisherman’s daughter, swam seven thousand miles from Baja California to nesting grounds in Japan, marking the first time any animal had been tracked swimming across an ocean. The experience convinced Nichols that the best way to change cultural habits was to earn the trust and respect of a local population, rather than alienate them through guilt and reams of scientific data.

“These turtles are big, strong, and wild—yet gentle,” Nichols says of these 150-pound sea creatures. “And you can get close to them and interact with them. There aren’t many creatures that big that you can do that with in the wild, and on their own terms. My goal was to share that sense of wonder; not to preach.” So Nichols invited dozens of turtle-hunting fishermen to a meeting to talk about their knowledge of local turtles and the possibility of their extinction. In time, many of the poachers agreed to catch and eat fewer turtles—which are traditionally prized for their red-meat-like flesh—and soon began working with Nichols to monitor local turtle populations and collect data.

Twenty years later, Grupo Tortuguero, the grassroots network that Nichols helped found, is active in fifty coastal communities. Hundreds of local volunteers, many of whom are former poachers, work to protect and promote an appreciation for and pride in these gentle animals. Says Nichols, “If given the chance, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to tell their grandkids that they helped rescue from extinction an animal that’s so central to their culture?”

This year there were some fifteen thousand green sea turtle nests on the beaches of southern Mexico.

– Andrew D. Blechman

See more multimedia from the May/June 2013 issue at www.orionmagazine.org/multimedia.

El Ascenso de la Tortuga Negra
Una exitosa historia de conservación

Fotografías de Neil Ever Osborne
Traducción Antonio Diego-Fernández R.

AUNQUE LAS TORTUGAS NEGRAS han habitado el Océano por millones de años, en las últimas décadas estos antiguos marineros (conocidos en México como tortugas prietas) han sufrido para sobrevivir al implacable embate de la cacería por sus huevos y su carne. A principios de los años 80, todavía habían aproximadamente 25 mil nidos cada año a lo largo de la costa mexicana. Pero conforme la demanda por su carne y huevos creció en México y Estados Unidos, la cacería de tortuga aumentó exponencialmente. Cuando el Gobierno Mexicano prohibió el comercio con Tortugas Marinas en 1990, de un día para otro aquellos que las trabajaban fueron catalogados como ladrones y cazadores furtivos. Esto no impidió que el tráfico continuara. Para mediados de los 90s, la caza furtiva, las redes de pesca, la contaminación y destrucción de su hábitat provocaron que el número de hembras y nidos fueran menos de 500.

En este periodo un estudiante de doctorado llamado Wallace J. Nichols propuso estudiar la biología y conservación de las Tortugas Marinas en el Noroeste de México para su tesis. Su proyecto no fue bien recibido por los académicos pues se pensaba que está ya era una batalla perdida.

Tercamente, Nichols, y un colega viajaron a Baja California para estudiar las 5 especies de Tortugas marinas que se congregan en ambos lados de los 3,000 Km. de costa para alimentarse de cangrejos, medusas, algas marinas y esponjas.

Con la ayuda de un pescador y un biólogo mexicano, Nichols colocó un transmisor a una tortuga caguama. La tortuga, llamada Adelita como la hija del pescador, nadó 11,200 Km. desde Baja California a su zona de anidación en Japón, resultando ser la primera vez que un animal era rastreado cruzando el Océano. La experiencia convenció a Nichols que la mejor manera de cambiar hábitos culturales era ganándose la confianza y el respeto de las comunidades pesqueras locales en vez de culparlas y atacarlas con datos científicos.

¨Estas tortugas son grandes, fuertes y salvajes—pero también son gentiles¨, comenta Nichols sobre estas creaturas de más de 200 kilos.¨ Uno puede acercarse a ellas e interactuar. No existen muchos animales tan grandes con los que uno pueda interactuar en lo salvaje, y en sus propios términos. Mi meta fue compartir esa maravillosa sensación, sin sermonear a nadie.¨ De esta manera Nichols comenzó a invitar a docenas de pescadores de tortugas a un reunión para hablar acerca de su conocimiento sobre las tortugas y la posibilidad de su extinción. Con el tiempo, muchos de estos pescadores aceptaron capturar y comer menos tortuga—que es consumida por su excepcional carne roja—y pronto comenzaron a trabajar en conjunto monitoreando poblaciones locales de tortuga y recolectando datos.

20 años después, Grupo Tortuguero, la red de conservación que Nichols ayudó a fundar, esta activa en 50 comunidades costeras en todo el Noroeste de México. Cientos de voluntarios, muchos de los cuales solían cazar tortugas, trabajan para proteger y promover la apreciación y el orgullo por estas magníficas especies. Dice Nichols, ¨Si llegara el momento, ¿quién no quisiera tener la oportunidad de decirle a sus nietos que ellos ayudaron a rescatar de la extinción a las tortugas marinas?¨

Este año se registraron 15 mil nidos de tortuga negra en las playas del Sur de México.

– Andrew D. Blechman

Neil Ever Osborne is a conservation photographer based in Toronto, Canada. His ongoing work in Baja California Sur documents the efforts of Grupo Tortuguero to bring sea turtles back to Mexico.

Comments

  1. Thank you to Orion Magazine for sharing the hopeful story of the black sea turtle recovery.

    The colleague mentioned is my dear friend Dr. Jeffrey Seminoff of NMFS SWFSC. The Mexican biologist is Antonio Resendiz.

    Together with Jeff and Antonio and Bety Resendiz we got things going. And legions of Mexican fishermen and sea turtle hunters expanded on our early efforts.

    GrupoTortuguero.org celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. It will take a good 15 more years to finish the job.

    Saludos, compadres!

  2. In Michoacan, Alfredo Figueroa, Javier Alvarado and Carlos Delgado have developed pioneering community-based conservation work spanning three decades. Their project in Colola was the inspiration for Grupo Tortuguero. These biologists together with hundreds of members of the Colola community, and their counterparts at Grupo Tortuguero are conservation heroes. Our hope is that they can continue to find the support they need to keep things going.

  3. A serious and beautiful conservation work of the  GrupoTortuguero.org, and Dr. Wallace J. Nichols.

    Desire to trip Baja and know all the work. Dr. Wallace has been opening new routes and new areas of study. The big difference is the human heat of the Tortugueros associated with science.

    Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is a pioneer. Long life to him and Tortugueros.

    Best

  4. An additional shout out to the WiLDCOAST International Conservation Team and ProPeninsula! So many organizations and individuals have contributed to black sea turtle recover efforts over the past three decades…it takes 100 villages to raise a sea turtle.

  5. What an amazing story and accomplishment (the work still continues though!). Thank you to all involved – you’re making the world a better place. And, Neil, beautiful and stunning imagery to complement the piece. I felt I was right there in Baja next to you as I was viewing the imagery.

  6. Que historia tan bella. Una que inspira esperanza para todos nosotros.

    I especially love the fact that you worked with el pueblo to bring this all together. This is yet another example of how it is vital for scientists to, not only stay connected with the general public, but also work with them side by side by skipping the sermons. Stories like these remind me why I became a wildlife biologist.

    You have inspired me to look into becoming involved.

    Saludos!

  7. I would like to know when nesting and hatching happen along the Baja Sur coast. Would love to witness this!

  8. thank you for believing that it wasn’t too late for the sea turtles. i thank you and the turtles thank you.
    great organization, great article and i couldn’t help notice that david james duncan did the music. i’ve read some of his books and didn’t know he was also a musician/composer.

  9. With tears in my eyes and a swelling heart, thank you — all of you who are saving the turtles, and all of you who made sure I got to read this story.

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