Issue 39 Feature The Planet

Inside A Covert Mission To Defeat Poachers In Nicaragua 

Under cover of night—and the threat of a hurricane—a high-stakes attempt to beat turtle egg thieves at their own game gets scrambled by Jason G. Goldman

January 6, 2017

At about the same moment I board a flight from Los Angeles to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, a tropical cyclone is quietly forming over the southwestern Caribbean sea. My plan—which I detailed in the Winter issue of GOOD—is to join conservationists on a covert mission to trick sea turtle egg poachers into swiping hyper-realistic decoy eggs along with containing GPS and Bluetooth tracking devices. If all goes smoothly, we’ll gain unprecedented insight into a vast, underground criminal network linked with a shadowy black market stretching from Central America to Asia.

But by the time I’m scheduled to land—around lunchtime on a tropical winter afternoon—the cyclone will have intensified into a full-blown hurricane. Though science journalism isn’t without some degree of risk, my biodiversity beat means I’m usually able to mitigate risks with a sufficient application of mosquito-killing DEET. I’m not a storm-chaser by either trade or personality; I’m an observer of creatures wilder than myself, under the supervision of expert scientists.

I climb in the truck and try not to calculate how quickly the dirt road under our tires would wash away in a storm.

Still, my plane touches down as planned, and before long I meet up with an exceptionally tiny crew. Other than a few overnight guests set to join us later in the week, it will just be me, our driver, photographer Phil Torres and his girlfriend, and two Paso Pacfíco staffers: country director Liza Gonzalez and scientific director Kim Williams-Guillén, who crafted the organization’s artificial egg prototypes by hand.

An ecologist and anthropologist by training, Williams-Guillén is a 20-year veteran of Nicaraguan conservation. She picked up electrical engineering a few years ago to help this project succeed. We’ll be putting her DIY decoys to the test for the first time on this expedition, and she’s eager for us to get started.

Conditions are hot and humid tonight. I climb in the truck and try not to calculate how quickly the dirt road under our tires would wash away in a storm. We’re heading for El Ostional, a sleepy fishing village situated within a wildlife refuge called La Flor. The beach there is a rarity, one of only seven on the planet to host a grand natural spectacle known as la arribada, or the arrival. The mass egg-laying event, involving tens of thousands of sea turtles, takes place just a few times each year, making this beach irresistible to poachers. Armed soldiers and wildlife rangers working with MARENA, Nicaragua’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, are here to protect the nesting mothers from thieves, who could fetch about $1-3 for every dozen eggs they steal, though the black market values a single egg—prized as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac—at upwards of $300. 

Under the best of circumstances, every sea turtle endures an uphill battle on the way to sexual maturity. Tens of thousands of eggs and babies represent a massive influx of nutrients into the ecosystem, and everybody wants in on the action. Young turtles that manage to survive hungry feral dogs, skunks, and crabs face rising ocean waters and encroaching coastal developments. Should they ever make it out to sea, they risk becoming “fisheries bycatch,” drowning on trawls, longlines, drift nets, gillnets, and traps—snagged along with ordinary seafood. It's why they’ve evolved to lay so many eggs: It’s a numbers game.

If we’re lucky, maybe 1 or 2 percent of the babies that hatch during this winter’s arribada will live to adulthood and return to La Flor to lay another generation of eggs. Even the act of reproduction will be a challenge, as turtle sex is determined by temperature. Thanks to climate change, more adults could turn out to be female than male. The odds, in short, aren’t good. Which is why poaching, with its ruthless efficiency, poses such a grave threat to Nicaragua’s olive ridley sea turtle, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has classified as vulnerable.

Though slightly less endangered than other species of sea turtle, the olive ridley—named for its distinctive green hue—is in peril, in part because it’s able to lay eggs in so few locations. At about two feet long and up to 100 pounds, a nesting olive ridley is the Goldilocks of the reptile world, deigning to lay her eggs only when circumstances are just right: preferably when she’s surrounded by thousands of fellow mothers-to-be; when the night sky is on the cusp of either a new or full moon, sometime between June and December; and when she’s found a beach that’s both wet and flat, which makes it a little easier for her to climb about and dig holes where her eggs can incubate.

It’s been a long day of travel, and I admit I’m exhausted. But it’s a warm, moonless night, ideal for egg-laying, and if we’re going to be there to drop our decoys during the arribada—clearly, a risky proposition even without a hurricane looming—we need to be on the lookout for nesters. So rather than retire for the night, Gonzalez tells me how to find a turtle getting ready to lay her eggs. The trick, it turns out, is to follow the tracks she leaves behind as she shuffles up the beach.

Using the forest as cover, the poacher likely spotted the sea turtle and, with the soldiers’ attention focused elsewhere, carried her to higher ground.

I’m surprised, then, when we spot an isolated turtle at the northern edge of beach near the forest, no tracks in sight. Gonzalez believes the turtle was harassed by a poacher. Using the thick forest as cover, the thief likely spotted her crawling out of the surf and, with the soldiers and rangers’ attention focused elsewhere, carried her to higher ground, positioning her on top of a hole that he’d dug himself, hoping she’d drop her eggs directly into it, which he’d transport elsewhere in a plastic bag. (Clearly, the alleged poacher is unaware that the olive ridley is such a diva.)

Perhaps frustrated by the turtle’s lack of output or spooked by our group’s advances, the poacher appears to have retreated back into the forest, leaving a confused, stressed sea turtle spinning around in circles. A MARENA ranger named Francisco, a two-year veteran of the job, gently nudges her so she faces the sea, then accompanies her to the waterline. We watch as her bioluminescent algae-coated carapace dips below the waves, her genetic legacy spared for at least one more evening. Later, we chance upon another turtle happily excavating her nest.

Shine a flashlight on a turtle while she’s moving up the beach or digging out a spot for her eggs and she’ll become quickly disoriented, so we observe her from just a few feet away using less bothersome red lights. Once she begins laying her eggs, she enters something I can only describe as a trance—so relaxed she lets us get close enough to investigate as about 90 goo-covered, ping pong-ball-sized orbs drop from her cloaca into the sand.

Francisco stands watch and scoops her eggs into a basket, counting them along the way. Williams-Guillén explains that he isn't necessarily trying to save the eggs from poachers; right now, he’s more worried about other turtles. Once the arribada starts in earnest, eggs laid by early birds like the two we’ve found tonight risk getting whipped into a meringue by thousands of their kin, wildly digging their own nests. Francisco’s job is to transfer eggs into sacks of beach sand outside the rangers' headquarters—where they can safely incubate for 45 days until hatching—and then set them free on the beach to begin their lives.

As the night wears on, with Hurricane Otto still churning far away over the Atlantic, it becomes clear that the arribada isn’t happening, at least right now—we just encountered a few solitary nesters. So we head back to our respective digs for the evening. Williams-Guillén has shacked up at Paso Pacfíco’s base of operations in Ostional. Gonzalez and I are crashing at a hostel I can only describe as crappy (though the food turns out to be delicious), while Torres and his girlfriend have made arrangements at a swankier lodge nearby. Still, it feels good to sleep.

By morning, Otto has been downgraded to a tropical storm, which we take to be an encouraging sign. The weather remains warm and humid, and there’s a cool breeze; the winds aren’t exactly fierce. But hurricanes are unpredictable, and our situation could get very dangerous, very fast. If we want to complete our mission, it’s got to be soon. Crossing our fingers that the arribada kicks off before the storm makes landfall, we head back out, decoys in hand.

Just as I’m helping a few wildlife techs install an artificial nesting box, an afternoon earthquake sends tsunami advisories flaring throughout Nicaragua.

The crew gets excited when we spot another turtle on the most remote fringe of the beach—not far from where we’d found the flustered nester the night before. An armed soldier outfitted in jungle fatigues stands over her. We’ve lost track of Francisco and his colleagues; this soldier is her last line of defense. Gonzalez sighs and says this turtle's eggs probably won’t make it through the night. Even with the added protection of an automatic weapon, her single nest hardly stands a chance against the countless unseen predators, human or otherwise, skulking about in the darkness.

Before the night closes, we happen upon a few more nesting turtles, but the thousands we’d been expecting are nowhere to be found. Otto grows again in strength, reclassified as a Category 2 hurricane. The next morning, just as I’m helping a few wildlife techs install an artificial parrot nesting box on one of Paso Pacfíco’s monkey sanctuaries, an afternoon earthquake off Central America’s Pacific Coast sends tsunami advisories flaring throughout Nicaragua and El Salvador.

It’s some time before we find out. We heard about it on the radio. Cell reception is spotty in La Flor. The property sits on a tiny strip of land sandwiched between Lake Nicaragua and the border of Costa Rica. My parents, sitting comfortably at home in the suburbs of West Los Angeles, seem to have heard about it before I did, sending a flurry of worried emails and texts and—for the first time in my decade as a wildlife reporter—making use of my emergency contact number, leaving a concerned message with the staffers back at Paso Pacfíco’s Managua office, who assure them I’m fine.

Yes, it’s wet and rainy, but for the duration of the expedition, Otto hasn’t felt like anything more than a theoretical hazard. A little rain is typical for a tropical ecosystem like this one. But the danger is real, the storm lingering overhead just a few hundred miles to the east—which is nothing when wind speeds exceed—as they have already—110 mph. Now that a tsunami threatens us from the west, the Paso Pacífico team calls it: It’s time to abandon our mission. There are no bridges here, just those dirt roads I noticed my first night. With a storm surge, some of them would quickly disappear into rivers and streams. The wise move is to head for higher ground in Central Nicaragua. We do it, our decoy eggs untested.

Sitting and waiting turns out to be the hardest part of the trip. Did we give up too easily? At the last minute, Otto veers slightly south, inflicting the worst of the devastation on Costa Rica and Panama, leaving Nicaragua thoroughly soaked, but with less damage than anticipated. Lost to the storm were 857 houses, 8 schools, and 2 health clinics. At least four people were killed. The tsunami never really materializes. El Ostional ends up relatively unscathed, though an older woman in the village suffered a fatal heart attack. Rumor has it that the stress of the warning itself is what killed her.

The weather on Friday is beautiful, the sky adorned in idyllic white and grey clouds, with a cool breeze sweeping through Managua as I prepare to board my flight back to Los Angeles. Ever dedicated to her cause, Williams-Guillén stays behind, hoping that the olive ridleys will find the perfect moment to arrive.

That moment has yet to come. December has come and gone, and the turtles have stayed away as well, likely put off at least initially by storm runoff that has made the water offshore murkier than usual. After having spent a month biding her time in Nicaragua, Williams-Guillén finally heads back to the states just before the new year. She doesn’t know if her invention will work.

The poachers are under the same pressure I am, I suppose.

I ask her how that feels. After all, I’m heartbroken about it, and I haven’t spent my adult life trying to save a creature as sensitive as the olive ridley. "Obviously I'm disappointed," she says. But she quickly pivots to the aspects of the mission that went well. 

Like a lot of her conservationist peers who’ve devoted their careers to thwarting the planet’s sixth extinction, Williams-Guillén is a pathological optimist. "I wasn't just sitting around for four weeks twiddling my thumbs. I had all those transmitters programmed, so I'd take them around with me wherever I went. The trip was not a total loss because I learned a lot about how the transmitters function in this kind of environment."

She’s right, of course. This isn’t the end of the line for Paso Pacífico’s decoys. There will be another arribada next spring, and Williams-Guillén plans to be there, decoys in tow. Besides, although the prototypes were optimized for her own use and not for other Paso Pacífico staffers, she left a few behind in case the turtles decided to show up after she left. “There will be a lot of poachers on the beach” for quite awhile, she says. “They are under the same pressure I am, I suppose.” It appears that conservationists and poachers have more in common than I ever would have imagined: They trust the fussy, fragile, frantic olive ridley to be one damn stubborn creature, working hard to secure its survival one tiny egg at a time.

Photography by Phil Torres

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Inside A Covert Mission To Defeat Poachers In Nicaragua  Under cover of night—and the threat of a hurricane—a high-stakes attempt to beat turtle egg thieves at their own game gets scrambled