A walkabout is a rite of passage- a person will go out into the wilderness to discover his or her identity and purpose, and then return home.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Turtle Conservation Project- Basic Facts

Hey!  I´m back in a place with internet access, yay!  So yáll should best get started on those emails you´re planning on writing me... *cough cough*

*Pictures will be added slowly, since the internet connection is sort of slow here

So what the hell was I doing for the past {almost} three weeks?  Well, before I can tell you about my personal (mis)adventures, let me fill you in on WIDECAST (the organization I worked with) and its mission, etc.

WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network) was established within the past decade to combat the slow-but-entirely-real extinction of the majority of sea turtle species.  {I´ll post facts soon about the sea turtles themselves.  Honestly, before I went to volunteer, I was relatively unaware about how marine turtles lived- not to mention their plight.}

Of course the most dangerous threat to sea turtles is mankind.  We´re pretty much the murderers of everything natural, it seems.  But with this in mind, the WIDECAST project at Pacuare Beach has three main functions: night patrols, hatchery maintenance (and guarding), and a turtle rehabilitation center.

Turtle poaching/being in possession of its meat or eggs is illegal in all of Costa Rica (and pretty much the rest of the world), except for one beach in the south of the country.  (That beach has "regulated" poaching, meaning during certain months a person can obtain a permit to take a certain amount of eggs out of the turtles´nests, because so many turtles come ashore to lay there, that many eggs would be lost anyway due to being dug up by other turtles.)  And luckily, the most populated nesting beaches are part of Costa Rican national parks (such as the well-known Tortuguero in the northeast), so there are coast guards present to deter poachers from taking turtles/eggs.  HOWEVER, the 7km stretch of coast where the conservation project I worked on was located happened to be the only unpatrolled beach area around, meaning poachers are very commonly seen roaming the beach at night.  Therefore, WIDECAST, a few other organizations, and the locals (who aren´t poachers, at least) have taken the place of the coast guards in order to keep the turtles safe.

Okay, so now a more detailed description of the three aspects of this specific sea turtle conservation project:

Night Patrols
Every night during high season (roughly March to late October), 1-3 groups of no less than two people each (and each group always has at least one male, just as a precaution and to ward off any potential advances from the poachers {or drunk/high/just plain nasty local men}) leave at staggered intervals to complete between four or five hours of walking up and down the coast in search of turtles/tracks.  The possible shifts were 8pm-12am, 12am-4am, and {rarely} 10pm-2am. 

The point of the patrols is to
1) make sure that if a turtle does come up on the beach, it isn´t spirited away by a poacher
2) ensure that if a turtle lays eggs (which only happens about 1/3 of the time- it´s not uncommon for a turtle to come out of the water only to turn right around and go back in without laying- called a rayon) the turtle is tagged and measured, and the eggs are collected and brought to the hatchery ("el vivero"), and
3) the locations of where turtles came up on the beach are recorded.

{WIDECAST has a nonconfrontational policy with poachers, meaning that even if you see a turtle or its eggs being snatched, you´re not allowed to do anything about it <-- very frustrating}

Night patrols are grueling, but more on that later.

The hatchery exists as a place to store all of the gathered nests, and then once the turtles hatch, they are released so they can make their way back to the sea.  The reason the nest just can´t be marked and left on its own when found is becuase the first week after eggs are layed is the most desirable time for poachers to get the eggs (since if too much time passes, the embryos have grown too much for the egg to be edible), and when a turtle has laid its eggs it´s quite obvious, thanks to the large, distinctive tracks they make to and from the sea.  Thus, the eggs are "replanted" in a hole (nest) in the hatchery, and the date they arrived and are then expected to hatch (roughly 60 days later) are recorded.   

The hatchery is guarded 24/7, and the hatchery attendant´s duty is to check the nests every 15-30 minutes (depending on how strictly they follow the rules of checking every 15...), and if one of the nests hatches, they then transfer the tortugitas to a bucket filled with sand, count how many there are, weigh and measure 15 of them, and then release them outside the hatchery- about 15 meters from the shore (it´s important that the turtles walk along the sand for enough of a distance, as it may affect their memory of which beach to return to).  Attendants also make sure that all the babies actually made it to the waves- you´d be surprised at how many start out moving away from the water.

Most hatches occur at night (when you have to laboriously check each nest with your RED light), so during the day hatchery duty was pretty much just time to chill.  Also, days shifts were only two hours long, compared to the four or six (!) hours at night.  And since you weren´t supposed to read (or sleep, duh) at night, those hours could go pretty s l o w l y.  My favorite longer hatchery shift was 6am-10am, becuase, though you were on your own (two people were only ever assigned simultaneously at night), I found reading/zoning in the sun to be a nice way to wake up.  Plus it meant you got a decent sleep the night before.

*The hatchery is also where the exhumations (unburying and looking at the remaining material) of thenestts occured.  These happened three days after a nest hatched, and sometimes the finds were quite interesting (read: disgusting).  A few times, there´d be babies left in the nest {but these were always "special," weaker hatchlings, since they didn´t make it out with all of the normal babies}, and even if there weren´t any live ones, the remaining eggs were always counted and the state they were in was recorded.  The majority of the remains were just egg shells, becuase the babies had hatched, but all the eggs that were whole had to opened and whatever was found inside was marked down: skin and bones, parts of turtles, just yolk, or embryos still in stages 1, 2 or 3 of development.  Exhumations were gross, and the nests often smelled terrible.  Once everything was recorded, all the remains went into a hole away from the hatchery- they were reburied to deter dogs from getting into them (and I guess developing a taste for turtles?).

Rehab Center
This was the smallest job at the project, and volunteers didn´t have much to do with it.  There was only one turtle (a juvenile hawksbill) in it when I was there, and all that had to be done was feeding it, cleaning it, and changing its water daily. (<-- worst. chore. ever.)  Becuase no vet had seen it yet, no one was sure if anything else needed to be done for it.  It had ended up in the rehab center becuase it was confiscated by the police from some people who had been trying to keep it as a pet; at this point it probaly wouldn´t be able to survive in the wild.  But like I said, I didn´t really have much to do with it besides cursing it for needing its water changed every day....  Haha, I´m not veiling my hatred of that task very well, am I?

There you go, the overall deets of the organization´s functions.  Expect the personal side of the story soon.

Dun dun dun....

xoxo, Cleome

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