Turtle beaches in Costa Rica – tourism, lucrative business or sustainable development?
Sea turtles (Chelonioidea and Dermochelyidae families) are a group of reptiles that include seven currently living species: the Green sea turtle, the Loggerhead sea turtle, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the Olive Ridley sea turtle, Hawksbill sea turtle, the Flatback sea turtle and the Leatherback sea turtle. Six of these species are included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is hardly surprising given the numerous threats in the oceans and on land that are contributing to the decline in the population of these animals. That is why turtle beaches, which are their breeding habitats, are subject to various forms of protection in many countries.
Sea turtles are found in the continental shelves of all oceans with the exception of the polar regions. These animals migrate long distances in the oceans, which is related to their life cycle. The Sea Turtle Conservancy conducts research on the ecology of sea turtles, the threats to these species and their migrations. On their website, you can even track the migrations of selected individuals on an ongoing basis thanks to the satellite tracking system of transmitters attached to their shells.
Sea turtles mate in the waters near their nesting sites. After the mating season, the males return to their feeding sites in the ocean, while the females go to the beaches and lay their eggs there. Most turtles nest alone, individually. However, in the case of the Olive ridley turtles Lepidochelys olivacea, it is synchronous. Females of this species arrive at the coast in large numbers and nest in groups. This phenomenon is called arribada, which means coming to shore.
Mature female turtles usually go out to sandy beaches at night and find a suitable nesting place there. Then they dig a round hole in the sand in which they lay their eggs. Depending on the species, a typical brood can contain 50 to 350 eggs. Finally, the turtles cover the nest with sand, trying to camouflage it so that it becomes as little visible as possible. Egg incubation takes about 50-60 days. Small turtles from one nest hatch together within a short period of time. Juveniles dig through the sand, come to the surface and head for the ocean. Most species of sea turtles hatch from eggs at night.
Tourism on turtle beaches
The phenomenon of sea turtles nesting on beaches arouses the interest of tourists. Programmes for sustainable and responsible tourism offering the opportunity to observe turtle nesting were started in the Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica. Until the 1960s, the small town of Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast was the place from which Green turtles were exported for consumption purposes. This decimated the population of these animals. After the creation of a national park in 1970 and putting the turtle breeding habitats under protection, the situation began to improve. Infrastructure development along the coast has been limited, and the presence of research staff and park rangers has discouraged poachers. The park now protects around 35 kilometres of sandy beaches and equatorial forests along the shore. The local inhabitants were also involved in the protection of turtles, so that ecotourism would become a satisfactory substitute for turtle hunting. Tortuguero Beach is the most important breeding habitat for the endangered Green turtle in the Western Hemisphere. The Leatherback, Hawkbill and Loggerhead turtles also nest there.
The development of turtle tourism should follow certain rules, because it carries with it various threats. The presence of humans on the beach after sunset may discourage females from going out and nesting on the shore. Artificial light sources (lanterns, lighting on buildings, flashlights in cameras and mobile phones, torches) are a particular deterrent as they scare turtles away and cause them stress. Artificial light also confuses the hatching turtles. They have an innate instinct that guides them towards the moonlight reflecting off the ocean. Artificial light draws young turtles towards the land, where they can die for a variety of reasons.
Watching sea turtles nesting in Tortuguero takes place only in the company of a licensed guide, whose task is not only to provide information, but also to ensure that tourists do not interfere with the normal mode of laying eggs by females. Evening trips of tourists to the turtle beach take place in organized groups of 20. Prices for these turtle tours start at $ 25-30 per person. Tourists are not taken to the beach when turtles emerge from the water so as not to scare them away. Observing turtles is possible only during the egg laying process, because the female then falls into a catatonic state and is not fully aware of what is happening in her immediate surroundings. During their stay on the beach, tourists are not allowed to use torches, cameras or camcorders. They are also advised to wear dark coloured clothes. The size of the groups and their time of stay on the beach is limited. The beach in Tortuguero is closed during the night hours and going there then is not allowed. This is to limit the activity of poachers-gatherers of turtle eggs. All this makes Tortuguero a flagship example of responsible and sustainable tourism development.
Annually, the Tortuguero National Park is visited by tens of thousands of tourists. Residents benefit from the development of tourism by offering visitors accommodation, meals, transport and the sale of souvenirs. Some work as local guides or are employed in counting or monitoring turtles. It is a win-win situation in which the objectives of nature conservation are met and the local community earns money on this protection. The protection of sea turtles and their breeding sites is supported in Costa Rica by the non-profit NGO Sea Turtles Forever. It conducts research and campaigns to clean up plastic waste littering turtle beaches.
Organization of tourism related to turtle breeding sites requires very good organization, adherence to certain rules and the cooperation of the tourists. In September 2015, photos from the Costa Rican Ostional reserve were circulated around the world, showing crowds of people walking among Olive turtles nesting on the beach. There were tourists there who touched animals, took pictures with flashlights, blocked the way and trampled the nests. The mass influx of visitors was caused by a free weekend that coincided with an exceptionally numerous arribada of turtles. The two rangers of the reserve, on duty at the time, were unable to stop tourists from entering the beach. This was an isolated incident and has never happened since. Nevertheless, it was an important lesson for everyone how easily a situation can get out of hand and how to counteract it.
Turtle eggs as part of the diet
In many coastal communities, especially in Central America and Asia, sea turtles are considered a food source. Therefore, hunting for these animals has always been intense. During the breeding season, people visited the beaches in search of nesting females, thus obtaining two products: meat and eggs. Turtles were also eaten in Europe, especially in eighteenth-century England, when turtle soup was considered a special delicacy. Sea turtle meat and eggs are also ingredients in Chinese cuisine. The Chinese value them for their unique taste and high protein content.
In Costa Rica, the demand for turtle meat and eggs has traditionally been very high. Turtle beaches during the breeding season offered a wealth of these products. You didn’t even have to go to sea to get them. It was enough to go to the beaches at night, those which are the breeding habitats of females. The tradition of collecting turtle eggs was widespread in Costa Rica until the end of the 1960s and the egg trade was a lucrative business. Eggs were a widely available and valued source of animal protein as a supplement to a normal diet. Today, although it is illegal to collect eggs or huntfor sea turtles, poaching is still widespread. Even in the protected beaches in the Tortuguero National Park, digging up turtle nests takes place.
Turtles are also caught for other purposes. Their fat used as oil was a valuable product. Their leather, which was processed into shoes and other leather products, is also valued. The Hawksbill species is particularly endangered. Its carapace, made of decorative plates, is used to produce tortoiseshell. It is used to make jewellery, eyeglass frames, combs and brushes.
Nowadays, all species of sea turtles are protected. They are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means that it is illegal to trade in wild-caught individuals, their body parts or turtle eggs. It can only be allowed under special circumstances. In any such case, you must have a special license allowing the sale of turtle products. One such exception is the turtle egg collection programme in the Ostional Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica.
Ostional Wildlife Refuge – a place where collecting turtle eggs is legal
The Ostional Wildlife Refuge, located on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, was established in 1984. It is the only place in the world where it is legal to collect and sell sea turtle eggs. Why was such an exception allowed?
In the 1980s it was proved that during the mass nesting of female Olive Ridley turtles, 70-90% of the previously laid eggs are destroyed. If the arribada lasts a few days, the eggs laid in the first several dozen hours will be dug up or destroyed by subsequent females building new nests. Therefore, no harm will be done if members of the local community gather the earliest eggs that have been laid. Moreover, by removing those laid during the first two nights, the survival probability of later eggs is increased as they are less likely to be infected with bacteria and fungi. The average density of nests in Ostional is 11 per 1 m2, while such an area can successfully support only 2 nests. Such a high density is the result of a limited area – the beach in Ostional is 8 km long and 200 meters wide. With all this in mind, the local community was allowed to collect turtles eggs and sell them for a profit on the domestic market. In this way an experiment, unique in the world, on the coexistence of humans and protected sea turtles was born.
Naturally, the collection of eggs follows strict rules and is supervised by the Ostional Internal Development Association (Spanish: Asociación de Desarrollo Integral de Ostional – ADIO). Turtle eggs can only be collected from the beach during the first 36 hours of each arribada. It is done by 200-300 licensed collectors, associated in a local cooperative. The harvested eggs are then certified, packaged, and distributed and sold throughout Costa Rica at a government regulated price. Only eggs with a special certificate and the ADIO trademark can be legally sold.
There is an ongoing debate among researchers as to whether the idea of legalizing the sale of turtle eggs is appropriate and consistent with the principles of sustainable development. The idea has its supporters who believe that the solution adopted in Ostional makes the activity of poachers irrational. If there are legal turtle eggs on the market, why sneak on to turtle beaches at night? Naturally, the members of the local community for whom collecting and selling eggs is an important source of income are satisfied with the program in effect. It is in the interest of this community to combat illegal egg gathering as well as to support the conservation of nesting turtles. This is an example of pragmatic, sustainable nature conservation.
However, there are also negative aspects of this solution. Some believe that the legal trade in turtle eggs fosters a black market where eggs collected by poachers can be sold with counterfeit certificates. Furthermore, the availability of such products only fuels the demand and the habit of consuming them. Perhaps we should strive to make such practices slowly become forgotten? Additionally, the implementation of such exceptions serve as precedents for other communities living near turtle breeding sites to implement a similar solution at their sites. Everyone would like to benefit from the proximity of turtle beaches. It is also worth considering whether the habit of selective egg collection on the beach of the Ostional reserve is definitely harmless. Do we know enough about the nesting ecology of the Olive Ridley turtles? Perhaps there is a functional explanation for the apparent “waste” of so many turtle eggs during the mass arribadas; an explanation that researchers are not yet aware of? Maybe it has deep ecological sense and we should not interfere in this process?
The above activities form part of the GEODESOLA project co-financed by the National Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA) under the “Foreign Promotion” program.
Anna Dudek – geographer, doctor of Earth Sciences, assistant professor and lecturer at the Faculty of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Warsaw. She has conducted field research in many regions of the world, mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Author of numerous publications on the conditions for the functioning of protected areas, nature tourism and development projects. An enthusiast of nature conservation, travel and photography. Member of the Warsaw Branch of the Polish Geographical Society.
The information contained in this essay comes, among other sources, from field observations during the author’s stay in Costa Rica in 2013.