On the evening of Thursday, April 15, two people hunted an olive ridley sea turtle on Ostional Beach, in the canton of Santa Cruz, to steal and sell its eggs. Although they were caught in the act by people patrolling the beach, the animal didn’t survive.
This is the first time in the last decade that a crime like this has occurred in the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge. However, according to the District Attorney’s Office press department, those involved have been prosecuted before for stealing nests of turtle eggs and other crimes of simple robbery. Both are already being investigated by the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ).
After investigating the case, those in charge of the Refuge were able to confirm that the turtle was still alive while the people were committing the crime and “suffered a slow agony until its death.” To them, this fact “demonstrates an escalation in the way in which these perpetrators are attacking the sea turtle population.”
The turtle was alive throughout this process of extracting the eggs, suffering the extreme pain and stress of the situation, so it suffered a slow agony until its death. This fact represents a severe act of animal abuse and torture,” emphasized the statement issued by the Refuge and reiterated by the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC).
The news circulated on WhatsApp groups in Ostional and caused uncertainty about the future of a community that has dedicated almost 30 years to the species’ conservation. The Voice spoke with multiple experts and analyzed several documents to understand more fully what the legal and environmental consequences of this crime are.
How does turtle hunting affect Ostional?
The olive ridley turtle is the species that comes most often to nest on the beaches of Ostional and is currently under the category of “critical status” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. According to the School of Biology of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), the greatest threats to the species are climate change, illegal turtle hunting and the theft of nests of eggs.
Ostional would then be breaking the silent pact it has with the turtles, in which they protect them from risks and external predators while they contribute to the local economy by attracting tourism and providing eggs for community use.
Didiher Chacon, marine biologist and Latin American coordinator for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), pointed out that it wasn’t just one turtle that died in Ostional, but also hundreds of possible descendants that it would have reproduced.
Chacon also explained that out of every 1,000 baby turtles that hatch at Ostional, only one survives to lay eggs. That turtle had already survived that process at the time of its death.
If you kill a sea turtle, you detract from the probability of survival of the species. She had gone through all that survival process at sea when she was slaughtered. Not only was a female killed; the reproduction of 20 years of egg reproduction was killed,” explained the expert.
Those responsible for the Refuge affirm that hunting also interrupts the role it had within the marine ecosystem, since the turtles also regulate the growth of species like shrimp and jellyfish. If more turtles are hunted, they are no longer there to stop the uncontrolled reproduction of these animals on the coast.
Nelson Marin, director of the Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT- Área de Conservación Tempisque), emphasized that those who attack turtles “attack the entire community
You have to pay a lot of attention as a society to acts like this of violence towards biodiversity. Because if they touch such vulnerable species, which represent the idiosyncrasy of Ostional, they are touching everyone who lives there,” he stated.
What will be the punishment for the people who committed the crime?
The District Attorney’s Office press department confirmed toThe Voice that OIJ is in a phase of investigation and gathering evidence against the suspects in the case, which is being processed by the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s Office.
Marin, the ACT director, stated that the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) knew about the situation the same day it happened and that they are going to request the maximum penalty for the accused.
What we want is for the District Attorney’s Office to take action, but also for other people who see the case to know that there are consequences for committing such a terrible act. These people had already tried to steal turtle nests, so we need the law to be fulfilled,” emphasized the director.
The Wildlife Conservation Law (N.7317) penalizes hunting any kind of wildlife with 1 to 3 years in prison. In addition, it establishes a fine of 1 to 3 base salaries to those who enter an official conservation area carrying knives, fire arms or any other tool used to hunt animals.
In addition, the Law of Protection, Conservation and Recovery of Sea Turtle Populations (N.8325) penalizes whoever kills, hunts, captures, butchers or sells sea turtles with 1 to 3 years in prison.
In 2013, a man who killed a green turtle in Barra del Tortuguero, Limon in order to steal its eggs and meat was sentenced to one year in prison by the Environmental Administrative Court. At that time, legislation allowed him to have conditional freedom because the penalty was less than three years in prison.
How can this be prevented from happening again?
Since 1987, the Ostional Development Association (ADIO) has led a project for independent local guides, the Ministry of Environment and UCR to authorize the local population to manage the turtle habitat and legally sell 1% of the eggs produced.
The community is in charge of monitoring and ensuring a suitable environment for the animals to arrive each month: from patrolling for people who might steal eggs or hunt turtles to constantly cleaning the beach. The system has worked almost completely since its implementation more than 30 years ago.
Marin considers this incident to be a reminder that the community of Ostional, and those who live near the Refuge, need to be in a constant process of education about the importance of sea turtles.
Marine biologist Chacon agrees. He considers it to be necessary to continue training people who live near refuges where sea turtles arrive so that they understand the importance of this species to the ecosystem and the economy of the communities.
We have to understand clearly, as most of Ostional does, that the turtles are the town’s main workers. They are the ones that attract tourists on a monthly basis, the ones that help feed the locals,” he said.
The ACT director emphasized that his institution, local organizations and MINAE must reinforce patrols on protected beaches since there is now the developing threat that they might attack the turtles again.
Currently ADIO has the Ostional Community Security Corps, a group that takes care of the beach all day in shifts. The ones who found the accused hunting the turtle are part of this group.