The Lone Hawksbill

By Maike Heidemeyer, The Leatherback Trust President’s Fellowship 2016-2017

Punta Descartes, at the northernmost tip of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, is one of the least economically developed areas of the country. The communities of El Jobo and Puerto Soley depend almost entirely on fish for sustenance and to generate income. When fish are scarce, families in the area have also traditionally collected sea turtle eggs to make up for lost protein or to generate cash income for school fees and household necessities.

Although the practice of collecting eggs for local consumption and sale may not have made much of a dent in the abundant sea turtle populations of long ago, the widespread commoditization of sea turtle eggs and their sale on the black market now present a very real threat. Touted as an aphrodisiac, sea turtle eggs are widely available in Costa Rican bars, including in La Cruz, the nearest city from Punta Descartes.

Since my first trip to Punta Descartes about three years ago, I have scientifically verified local reports of three different sea turtle species nesting in the area. I am particularly interested in the species that lays tiny pinkish eggs and locals knew where to find these nests since these delicate eggs earn a high price on the black market. These are the eggs of critically endangered hawksbill turtles. I found empty hawksbill eggshells at Isla Bolaños in Bahía Salinas, an island technically within the boundaries of Santa Rosa National Park yet beyond the reach of the under-resourced rangers tasked with protecting it. But setting up a monitoring project on an island at the heart of a boundary dispute between the countries of Nicaragua and Costa Rica is not the easiest task, so I set my sights on monitoring hawksbill nesting beaches near Punta Descartes.  

One a year later, the El Jobo community affirmed their interest in establishing a monitoring project for hawksbills and other sea turtles nesting on local beaches. Although nearly all of the community members had, at some point, collected turtle eggs for local consumption, an increase in non-locals stealing “their” eggs for sale in other parts of Costa Rica, spurred some critical thinking about the future of local nesting sea turtles. The Mora Vargas family drew from their own pockets and on their own deep personal motivations to organize themselves and their children to monitor the beaches and protect all turtle nests they could find. They watch over every nest from laying by a nesting female until the hatchlings emerge about 50 days later.

With the support of a President’s Fellowship from The Leatherback Trust, I am helping them establish this monitoring effort by working hand-in-hand with the El Jobo community to monitor local nesting beaches and protect their sea turtles. Our group is called Equipo Tora Carey, which references local lore about a “fourth turtle species”, that only exists at El Jobo. Apart from East Pacific green (also called black or “Tora”), olive ridley and hawksbill (known locally as “Carey”) turtles, the elusive fourth species is said to be a green turtle of Indo-Pacific origin with a shape similar to an East Pacific green but the colors of a hawksbill turtle.

From the very beginning, we set a goal of finding a hawksbill nest. On the 14th of August, we were rewarded. What was initially classified as an “olive ridley false crawl” turned out to be the first reported hawksbill nest on Playa Rajada, identified by Denilson Obando Mora, the 17-year-old son of Kembly Mora Vargas, correctly identified and classified the hawksbill tracks and nest. Denilson also used to collect eggs, but he has now become one of our most important nest protectors. We checked this nest every night for the next 60 days under the guidance of Randall Mora Vargas, who is Denilson’s uncle and is in charge of undertaking all nightly beach patrols.

On the 6th of October, Randall, Denilson and others from El Jobo went to Playa Rajada to check on the hawksbill nest around noon planning to stay until sundown when they expected the hatchlings to emerge. When they arrived, they found hatchling tracks leading away from the nest. The tracks told a grisly story: the hatchlings had tried to make their way to the sea but got stuck in the rutted tracks of vehicles driven on the beach and had been unable to reach the ocean before the sand got too hot. Randall, Denilson and the community members searched for the hatchlings in the scorching sand. All of the hawksbill hatchlings they found were dead except one. They put the lone survivor in a bucket with wet sand (for rehydration) and kept it in a cool, dark place until the night began to fall on Rajada. With tremendous sadness, the El Jobo community watched the last hawksbill hatchling make its way to the sea, hoping to see it return as an adult someday.

Megan Chastney 2016

Hawksbill hatchlings had tried to make their way to the sea, but got stuck in the rutted tracks of vehicles driven on the beach in Playa Rajada

Punta Descartes is considered underdeveloped by the usual socio-economic measures used by the Costa Rican National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), despite efforts by developers to bring large-scale tourism to the area. The construction of a high-end, all-inclusive resort at Playa Jobo, despite generating some economic improvement to the local society, was accompanied by environmental conflicts that remain unresolved. Adventure tour operators greeted the new influx of visitors to the region with activities that negatively impact sea turtles, such as quad-biking on Playa Rajada and jet skiing in potential internesting habitat offshore (where turtles go to recover their strength between laying multiple clutches of eggs during a nesting season). Cutting down beachfront vegetation to facilitate ocean views and make space for beachfront campsites in Playa Rajada and other beaches also negatively impacts sea turtles by contributing to light pollution and beach erosion, the same factors that contributed to a decline in sea turtle nesting at the beaches that once fringed the now overdeveloped tourist town of Tamarindo. Costa Rica is known worldwide for exemplary ecotourism, which brings in tourism dollars in ways that help to support, not undermine, wildlife protection. That one lone hawksbill hatchling represents the true costs of unsustainable development around Punta Descartes.

After spending several days questioning whether our exhaustive monitoring efforts were for naught, Equipo Tora Carey gathered to discuss our next steps. We wanted to help protect hawksbills and other sea turtles and we knew that we would fail if we restricted ourselves to just sea turtle monitoring and nest protection efforts. To truly protect critically endangered hawksbills from extinction, we all need to fight against further destruction of critical sea turtle habitats. Tourists can tell tour operators they don’t want quad-biking at nesting beaches like Playa Rajada and campers can choose other places to set up their tents. With the lone hawksbill hatchling as our inspiration, we are now advocating for the Costa Rican government to restrict vehicles and camping at Playa Rajada as a means to safeguard this important sea turtle nesting beach for East Pacific green, olive ridley and hawksbill sea turtles.