On Friday, May 31, 2013, while returning from a long night walking a turtle-nesting beach near the city of Limón, young Costa Rican conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval was abducted by unknown assailants, beaten and murdered. The beach where Mora worked, Moín Beach, is a hot spot for nesting by the critically endangered leatherback turtle, but it is also well known for poaching and as a transfer point for drugs entering Costa Rica. This beach has now become a flash point for the direction that Costa Rica could go as a country.
This brave young man had recently spoken out to the media about the lack of government support for turtle conservationists in the area. With a Ministry of Environment tolerant of the illegal trade in sea turtle eggs – and without effective enforcement over a flourishing black market – efforts by local police and Coast Guard have routinely fallen short of what is needed to safeguard people working to protect the nation’s natural treasures. It was in this context that a small group of conservationists were left on their own against poachers. They had received threats but never thought their work to protect endangered turtles would result in a tragedy.
I spent two years of my life walking Costa Rica’s turtle beaches. I know what it’s like to be in the dark, with little to defend yourself. I worked for the same organization that Mora and his compatriots worked for, learning from Didiher Chacón, country coordinator and director of Latin American programs for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) and one of the country’s leading conservationists. I never felt threatened on those beaches, but that experience was challenging enough, dealing with rain, insects, and more to make sure the nests were protected.
Costa Rica is known around the world as the place where ecotourism was born. The country has beautiful beaches, lush tropical forests and the most species of wildlife per kilometer in the world, according to some. Sea turtles are a main attraction, nesting on dozens of beaches on both coasts and attracting thousands of people each year. Visitors come from all over the world to volunteer on these beaches, spending their time, money and sweat with the goal of contributing to the conservation of these incredible animals.
Now more than ever, the volunteers and travelers that come to these beaches are critical to the success of efforts to protect sea turtles in Costa Rica and around the world. The majority of turtle conservation work in this small Central American country is not done by the government. Instead, dozens of non-profit organizations toil long hours, for very little income, to make sure the eggs, meat and shells are not collected for sale on the black market. Rarely do the police, Coast Guard or rangers from the Ministry of the Environment walk the beaches or enforce the laws. Poachers are caught red-handed and go without prosecution. Fortunately, most of the country’s nesting beaches are not as dangerous as Moín Beach, and conservationists and volunteers can safely walk the beach without worry of danger.
When the government of Costa Rica spends millions of dollars to market itself as a wildlife paradise but does next to nothing to protect that wildlife, will the volunteers and tourists still come? President Laura Chinchilla must show the world that the country will not stand silent as those most dedicated to protecting the country’s natural resources are cut down for speaking out and doing what’s right. Mora’s family – and his many friends and colleagues – will never be the same, but some good can come from tragic death. The government can name Moín Beach a national park in his honor, securing this beach for both the turtles and the conservationists and taking away an entry point for illicit drugs and other illegal activities.
Each of us who share Mora’s passion for biodiversity conservation work can help to ensure that the world never forgets his contribution to Costa Rica’s sea turtles. For those who would like to help ensure his legacy lives on, here are a few ways to participate:
Donate to the Jairo Mora Sandoval Memorial Fund
This money will be used to support his family, create a national park in his honor and continue his legacy. One hundred percent of donations will go to the fund (no administrative fees will be taken), and the first $3,000 will be matched by WIDECAST, SEE Turtles, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sea Turtle Conservancy and EcoTeach. The fund is managed by our partners at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
Encourage Costa Rican President Chinchilla to ensure that the killers are caught and brought to justice and to ensure the safety of all of the country’s conservationists, present and future.
All images are copyright protected and may not be used without permission. All photos are courtesy of Brad Nahill.