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Jack Rudloe
June 25, 1990
Poachers on the west coast of Nicaragua threaten the future of a species
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June 25, 1990

Report From A Turtle Battleground

Poachers on the west coast of Nicaragua threaten the future of a species

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"Jack! They come with a horse and load up sacks of turtle eggs." Balford Welcome was angry. "We been working all night long to save the eggs, and now they dig 'em up and take 'em away. They cannot do that. That's too many turtles, mon. They leave no eggs at all, leave nothin' for the years."

I crawled out of my tent, yawning at the glassy sea and at Chococente beach, a government preserve on Nicaragua's west coast. Welcome didn't notice the view. "We do not want to see Nicaragua turn into another Jamaica—no fish, no lobster." His voice rose to shrillness. "We see it go to nothin' there when they take and take and take. Now they do the same thing to the turtles. They don't learn nothing!"

Welcome, a commercial fisherman, was attending a two-week seminar on marine biology sponsored by the University of Central America in Managua. He and a dozen other students and instructors—I was one of the latter—had dug eggs all night and counted and relocated them to the safety of the government hatchery here at Chococente.

It was dawn on a November day in the midst of the Pacific ridley sea turtles' egg-laying season. Welcome stood there expectantly, looking at me. "Well, do something about it," I shouted above the surf. "After all, it's your country. Go get the guards up. Go with them, and get them to do their job."

Welcome ran to the guardhouse and shook the three exhausted men sleeping inside. They too had been up all night, helping us. A guard in his undershirt sleepily rubbed his eyes and picked up his automatic rifle. Welcome pointed to the distant silhouettes in the early morning light, the hueveros—egg harvesters—down the beach.

Welcome was furious. After working all night to protect turtle eggs, he was not about to stand by while poachers stole thousands more off the beach. Working in four-hour shifts, we had trekked up and down a 1�-mile stretch of beach, taking eggs to the fenced-off stretch of sand in front of the guard station, where they could be reburied and protected until they hatched. Though Chococente beach is a designated preserve, we had seen people moving in the semidarkness, shadows on horseback, hueveros.

It was not surprising. Until two years ago the government paid the hueveros to bring the eggs to the hatchery. Bowing to centuries of tradition, it allowed local residents to take eggs for private use in any month except November, the peak of the laying season, when more than 5,000 turtles come ashore.

All in all, it was a good program, balancing conservation and human need. But after a U.S. trade embargo was imposed on Nicaragua in 1985, money to buy the hueveros' harvest disappeared. The staff of the Nicaraguan natural resources agency also had to be cut, so there was no longer enough manpower to protect the beach.

A couple of weeks before our visit, some poachers had broken into the hatchery and smashed some eggs to show what they thought of the efforts to keep poachers off the beach. Now there were the makings of a far more serious incident.

The guards, Welcome and several other students hiked down the beach. The guards told the poachers that the season was closed, and asked them to leave. It did little good; the hueveros were used to having their own way. There were at least 20 of them on the beach, men who had worked hard all of their lives, fishing and farming for almost no money. Each carried a three-foot-long stick with which to stab into the ground in search of buried turtle eggs.

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