Magazine article Geographical

Turtle Oblivion

Magazine article Geographical

Turtle Oblivion

Article excerpt

The coconut fringed Corn Islands are set amid a turquoise sea and protected by a coral reef. A paradise, it would seem. That is as long as you're not a green sea turtle,

I'D COME TO NICARAGUA in search of sea turtles but I wasn't having much luck. True, the best-known turtle-nesting beaches are farther south, at Tortuguero, on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. There, I could have joined a group of turtle watchers to observe green and hawksbill turtles laying their eggs. During the twice yearly nesting seasons, visitors descend in the middle of the night on Tortuguero's beaches to watch the ancient reptiles haul themselves out of the sea to lay their eggs in the pits they dig in the warm sand, just above the high-tide mark.

But while no doubt an enchanting experience, what drew me to Central America wasn't Costa Rica's admirable contribution towards saving sea turtles from extinction. Instead, I was interested in neighbouring Nicaragua's rather different attitude. True, turtles who lay their eggs on the country's Pacific beaches are legally protected, as are those in Costa Pica. Those in Nicaragua's Caribbean waters, however, are hunted and slaughtered.


For eight months of the year, turtles graze among the sea grass that surrounds the Miskitu Cays to the northeast of Puerto Cabezas and, farther south, the Pearl Cays, between Pearl Lagoon and Corn Island. For centuries, European sailing ships visited the region, supplying manufactured goods to the Miskitu Indians in exchange for `tortoiseshell'-- the shell of the hawksbill turtle -- and live green turtles which they harpooned offshore. Lying on their backs with their flippers trussed up, green turtles were stored alive on ships, providing crews with a source of fresh meat that would last weeks.

In the 18th century, shipments of live green turtles were regularly dispatched to London and, by the 19th century, turtle soup had become a standard feature of society dinners and banquets. Turtle became one of coastal Nicaragua's most important exports. Since the early 1800s, turtlers from the Cayman Islands regularly caught turtles in Nicaraguan waters and eventually dominated the sale of the much valued reptile to soup manufacturers in Britain and the USA. Gradually, the Miskitu abandoned striking their prey with harpoons and adopted the Caymanians' more efficient, though arguably unsustainable, method of catching turtles using entanglement nets.

Today, the international trade in turtle meat and shell is prohibited, with campaigning organisations worldwide promoting the reptile's place in the public's imagination. But while the idea of eating a bowl of turtle soup would be as appealing to most Europeans or Americans as the thought of a panda steak, Nicaraguans don't have the same attitude. Not only is turtle the most popular meat consumed on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, there's a hefty demand for Caribbean turtle flesh in the country's heavily populated Pacific region.

All this rather seems to undermine Costa Rica's turtle protection efforts. There, marine environmentalists despair as hatchlings head to the sea, knowing that even if the turtles overcome the thousand-to-one odds of reaching maturity, they may well end up in a Nicaraguan cooking pot. But to most Nicaraguans the issue is more complicated. Almost all hunting is done by Miskitu Indians, and a prohibition on the sale of the turtles they capture would deny this indigenous people one of their few resources. Banning turtle hunting would rob poorer people of their main source of meat -- it sells for almost half the price of beef. In this region local people don't accept that the creature is endangered. And while Costa Rican communities have at least been able to derive economic benefits from tourists visiting nesting beaches, turtles in Nicaragua's Caribbean waters are far from shore and way out of sight. I chose Little Corn Island, some 80 kilometres east of Bluefields, as my turtle-hunting jumping-off point. …

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