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A leatherback turtle lays her eggs in the sand as volunteers, working to conserve nests from poachers, take measurements.

Blood on the Beach

The kidnapping and brutal murder of a sea turtle conservationist.

BY Todd Steiner

Costa Rican officials claimed the individuals apprehended in the brutal murder of a conservationist were part of a criminal gang responsible for robberies and rapes. But they downplayed the link to egg poaching, leaving activists uncertain whether the right people had been arrested.

Two months after the kidnapping and brutal murder of a Costa Rican conservationist, activists in several nations rallied in late July to demand prosecution of the killers and greater protection for conservation workers.

On the evening of May 30, masked men carrying guns kidnapped Jairo Mora Sandoval and four women while they patrolled the nesting sites of sea turtles on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast, near the town of Limon.

The women were locked up in an abandoned shack, and the masked men drove off with Mora, who was bound and beaten. He died from blunt force trauma and asphyxiation from swallowed sand. The women escaped and called the police. Mora, 26, had grown up in the area and from a young age had been involved in turtle conservation work, volunteering and working on nesting beaches in Costa Rica. At the time of his death, he was working for WIDECAST, a regional conservationist organization funded by the United States Agency for International Development. (WIDECAST has closed its sea-turtle conservation programs in the region because of the murder.)

Leatherbacks are an endangered species, and poaching their eggs is illegal in Costa Rica (with the exception of one beach on the Pacific coast). Leatherbacks, which can reach almost 10 feet in length, are the world’s largest sea turtle. Their eggs are considered an aphrodisiac and sell for $1 each in bars. A single nest can yield 100 eggs, and a poacher can harvest several nests in one night.

According to volunteers with Mora’s program, poachers on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast have recently become more aggressive, and in recent months they had warned Mora to end his egg-protection endeavors. In April 2012, his turtle hatchery was raided by poachers who tied up the volunteers and stole the eggs.

Mora had demanded more protection from local law enforcement officers, who only irregularly patrolled the beach that he protected.

“Conservation activists on the front lines are not police and need the backup of authorities to protect endangered species, especially from organized criminal elements,” says Teri Shore of the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN, which I founded). “We demand that sea-turtle nesting beaches be made safe for nesting turtles and the people working to save them.”

After Mora’s death, a coalition of organizations and individuals began organizing on behalf of justice for Mora and for increased protection of frontline conservation workers. Spearheaded by TIRN and the Center for Biological Diversity, they established a reward fund for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators. SeaTurtles.org, a project of TIRN, set up a petition and a memorial fund to help Mora’s family and create conservation programs in his memory.

By late August, more than 150,000 people had signed the petition that demands Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla “capture these sea turtle poachers and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.” Donations to the reward fund have topped $56,000.

Activists also held rallies around the world in late July, delivering copies of the petition to Costa Rican embassies and consulates in Los Angeles, Houston, El Salvador, India, Spain, Ecuador, Germany and Australia. The petition noted that “Costa Rica is respected around the world … for its peaceful, safe society that supports ecotourism. Now that human and sea turtle lives are in jeopardy on Costa Rican beaches, the entire ecotourism economy is in jeopardy.”

On the morning the protests began, Costa Rican security forces launched raids in several towns near the murder site and arrested eight suspects.

In a press conference following the arrests, Costa Rican officials claimed the individuals apprehended were part of a criminal gang responsible for robberies and rapes. But they downplayed the link to egg poaching, leaving activists uncertain whether the right people had been arrested.

“Even though suspects have been arrested, we are not celebrating until we are sure the right people are locked up for good to rot in jail,” says Randall Arauz, president of the Costa Rican Sea Turtle Restoration Program.

For now, activists are waiting for the trial to begin and for more facts to emerge. They vow to take to the streets again if justice is not served. “Jairo will not be forgotten, nor will we allow his death to be in vain,” Shore says.

“Until there is justice and additional protection for conservation workers, we will keep this issue alive in the media and in the streets.”

Todd Steiner is the founder and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.

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