Hundreds Of Sea Turtles
Massacred By Mexican Poachers

By Elizabeth Fullerton
Independent Online - South Africa
"The worst thing is that they kill them with machete blows... The turtles take a long time to die. It can take two hours and as they are being cut open they are crying and whining, even moving their flippers about."
SAN VALENTIN BEACH, Mexico (Reuters) -- Carcasses of hundreds of endangered sea turtles, bludgeoned and carved open by poachers, litter the virgin beach of San Valentin on Mexico's Pacific coast.
Volunteers at a remote turtle protection camp here, 215km north of the popular tourist resort of Acapulco, say most of the animals died in a massacre over the past few months' nesting season as poachers sought turtle meat and eggs which are sold illegally in big cities as a delicacy.
The killing spree was on a larger scale than poachers usually risk and outraged environmentalists. The turtle protectors, who collect and safeguard the creatures' eggs, blame poverty in the region and a lack of patrols by environmental authorities.
More than 100 turtle heads grimace above empty shells on an 800-metre section of the beach, six kilometres from the camp, which is perched on a spit of sand between a coconut palm-lined lagoon and the ocean.
"The worst thing is that they kill them with machete blows," said Raul Lopez, head of the San Valentin turtle protection camp, pointing to several smashed-in turtle skulls.
It's not a swift, merciful death.
"The turtles take a long time to die. It can take two hours and as they are being cut open they are crying and whining, even moving their flippers about," said Medardo Navarrete, who like many of the other 21 camp workers, is a former poacher turned protector, converted by the government.
The sale of turtle meat and eggs has been banned in Mexico since 1990, but the threat of up to nine years in prison has not been enough to deter poachers.
Mexico's environmental watchdog Profepa has just 300 agents to protect the country's rich wildlife and relies heavily on back-up from the army, navy and federal and state police.
But in unruly Guerrero state, renowned for political unrest and drug trafficking, the security forces have limited resources for saving turtles.
The conservationists frequently encounter gun-toting poachers on their patrols but are powerless to stop the killings and afraid of reprisals if they speak out.
Working quickly in the dead of night, the poachers flip the lumbering creatures onto their backs, cut open their bellies, and remove the flippers, eggs and intestines. Food stalls sell the eggs and meat, which are prized as a delicacy, to trusted clients while the skin is used for exotic boots, belts and purses.
Most of the victims are Olive Ridley turtles, of which the environment ministry estimates 3,000 females nest annually in Mexico, but this massacre also claimed two rare Leatherback turtles, of which just 50 females are believed to come to Mexican shores to nest every year.
Many of the San Valentin camp workers were persuaded in 1999 by environment ministry officials to protect the turtles.
They now collect the eggs which the turtles deposit mainly between June and January, rebury them in protected pens and release them into the sea when they hatch.
The San Valentin camp, consisting of a cluster of open-sided huts hung with hammocks, is reachable only by four-wheel drive vehicle or by boat up a crocodile-infested, jungle lagoon from the town of Petatlan.
The environment ministry runs 27 official turtle protection camps in Mexico. This camp is one of 120 more set up nationwide by civic groups and hotels.
Mexico's seven turtle species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Locals living on the coast have long eaten turtle eggs, believing them to have aphrodisiac powers, even though experts say all they contain is a lot of cholesterol.
"It was a custom for many years to go to the beach and pick up eggs," Javier Rodriguez, mayor of Petatlan municipality responsible for San Valentin, told Reuters in an interview.
Turtle eggs sell for up to 15 pesos (about R10) each. Still more lucrative for poachers is the Leatherback whose breast yields up to 22 litres of oil which goes for at least 100 pesos a quart as a supposed cure for asthma and bronchitis.
Petatlan is investing 1.5 million pesos (R945,000) to pay for 12 mounted police to patrol the 60km of beaches that come under its remit.
In the meantime, convoys of state police are doing twice-daily rounds of the beaches.
Humans are the biggest threat to Mexico's turtles, but baby turtles and eggs are also hunted by birds, dogs, crabs and sharks. On average, out of 10,000 that hatch, just 0.02 to 0.2 percent of turtles reach adulthood, environment experts say.
Turtle lovers remain undaunted. The volunteers at San Valentin hope this year to collect 40,000 eggs compared with 22,000 last year, just half of which hatched.
"We got so excited to see the newly hatched turtles jump into the sea. It moves your heart," said volunteer Mario Espinosa.
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