While we are all staying safe at home watching these heartwarming videos of dolphins in the Venice canals, a darker story is unraveling in Costa Rica. Several species of sea turtles come to Costa Rican beaches to hatch and nest every year. Local conservation organizations, such as Latin America Sea Turtles (LAST), work tirelessly to protect the sea turtles and their hatchlings against threats, often with the help of international volunteers.
When those volunteers cannot come to the beaches anymore, the potential consequences for the sea turtles are dramatic. We spoke with Nicki from LAST to understand better the current situation.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your role within LAST?
My name is Nicki Wheeler, I am the volunteer coordinator for LAST but take on many other roles such as creating international awareness for sea turtle conservation, contracting local providers for accommodation and transport services, and working on events.
I have been working for the organization for five years now, personally attending to all of our volunteers, university groups, research expeditions and school trips. I recruit and manage all of our research assistants – students that do their internships with us as part of their academic courses or just to gain field experience.
How did you become involved with animal protection in general and with LAST Costa Rica in particular?
I am originally from the UK, where I studied environmental science and human biology. After graduation I moved to Spain and lived there for 15 years, running a bar and a restaurant. After many happy years I felt like I needed a big change in my life. That change came in the form of volunteering in Costa Rica in 2004. I chose to teach English in a rural school, but also signed up for a month of sea turtle conservation volunteering with LAST. This volunteering experience changed my life forever. When I finished my placements, I went back to Spain, sold my house, quit my job, and came straight back to Costa Rica. I have been here ever since, 16 years and counting! I got married to a Costa Rican and we have just adopted a little boy.
Since I came back for good, I have been involved in conservation projects: working for a volunteer placement agency, working in inventories with the Ministry of the Environment, setting up turtle projects and training local community members, and leading groups of forestry fire fighters.
When I was given the opportunity to work with LAST I didn’t hesitate. That was it. I had come a full circle from my first volunteer placement, and I was finally able to dedicate myself to the turtles.
How does LAST operate? How many volunteers do you work with on a regular basis? What are their roles and responsibilities?
LAST has several areas of expertise. We currently run two research projects – a nesting beach on the Caribbean coast, and an in-water study in the Pacific. We also operate as Environmental consults for both public and private institutions, and for the Costa Rican Government. We also have an environmental education program.
The two research projects are almost fully funded by volunteer participation. Five years ago, we received just under 700 volunteers between both projects, but last year we received over 1500.
Not only do the volunteers provide the funding to keep the research going, but also, they are the manual labor that enables us to do our work. They are fundamental to the organization.
LAST Volunteers take part in all aspects of sea turtle conservation
Why is sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica so important? What are the needs and dangers associated with it and what does LAST do to address them?
Of the seven species of sea turtles on our planet, we are lucky to have five of them either nesting, foraging or reproducing in Costa Rica’s coastlines and shallow waters. Of these five species, two are classed as vulnerable, two are endangered, and one is critically endangered. Sea turtle populations have decreased drastically over the last 30 years – mainly due to human activity. If nothing is done to protect these species, they may face complete extinction. In fact, the subpopulation of leatherback turtles we are working with in our nesting project is already considered in danger of extinction according to a 2008 study.
One of the main problems we face is the illegal extraction of eggs – or egg poaching. The consumption of turtle eggs in common in Central American, and there is a black market demand for them. By patrolling the beach, we can relocate nests into our manmade hatchery, where the nest can be monitored until it hatches, making sure that the hatchlings can reach the ocean safely.
In addition, many of the impacts of climate change, for example beach erosion and rising temperatures, can be mitigated by the project. At risk nests are relocated into the hatchery, resulting in better survival rates for the hatchlings.
How has the Coronavirus crisis affected your work? What are the immediate and long-term challenges for LAST?
We have gone from a very healthy 1500 volunteers in 2019 to zero. Zero volunteers means zero income and this has impacted the organization in several ways.
We have virtually no funding to keep the project running – we cannot pay salaries, food, fuel and housing for our staff. We cannot pay the salaries for the local community members who worked at the project, and there is a possibility that they will resort to poaching the eggs to feed their families.
There are now many more poachers than workers – We are currently relying on just 3 staff members – two of those are temporary research assistants who are due to finish their contracts this month. This means three people only to patrol 7 km of beach, and monitor nests in the hatchery. It is a real battle to get to the turtle nests before the poachers do. There are now many more poachers that workers.
Other providers that depend on the project for an income have also been affected – taxi drivers, handicraft sellers, food providers, the local lady who used to cook for us, and the list goes on…
Our environmental education program has been cancelled – due to lack of funding, but also due to social distancing recommendations. This is an issue that will definitely have a negative impact in the medium and long term.
Sea turtles on their way to the ocean
What consequences of this crisis are you most worried about?
I am concerned we won’t get through this, that we won’t recover from it. I worry that we won’t be able to save the nests that are so vulnerable right now, and that we won’t see the impact of this for another 20 years, when those eggs will have reached sexual maturity, and will come back to nest on Pacuare beach.
I am worried that people will be afraid to travel in the future, and that the concept of volunteering with wildlife will be forgotten as people choose to stay home.
I am concerned that the communities where we have spent years teaching ways to live more sustainable lives will forget all about it and get back to their old ways as people struggle to feed their families.
There is no doubt that the impact of this crisis will be felt long after the quarantine and travel ban are lifted.
LAST has launched a Sea Turtle Emergency Fund on GivingWay. You can support the incredible work of Nicki and the LAST Staff HERE. When you make a donation to this project, you contribute to save a whole generation of endangered species!
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