José Urteaga: Turtle Defender

In this post, reprinted from the pages of the December 2011 National Geographic magazine, get a first-person view of life in the field from Emerging Explorer José Urteaga.

MISSION To protect endangered sea turtles along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast

Every winter in Nicaragua’s Río Escalante Chacocente Wildlife Refuge, I wait for olive ridley turtles to come out of the Pacific to nest on the beach. The event, called an arribada (arrival), is a frenzy as thousands of turtles compete for space and start to dig. When it’s over, the beach is full of turtle tracks and nests. Everyone’s exhausted. But my work is just beginning.

On land the main threat to olive ridley turtles, and to critically endangered leatherbacks and hawksbills, comes from the poachers who steal their eggs. Eating sea turtle eggs has been illegal in Nicaragua since 2005, but there’s still an appetite for them. For a poacher, it’s quick, easy money—$30 a nest. The average local income is $100 a month.

Since 2002, my team and I have monitored thousands of nests and relocated many to hatcheries. Some rangers who work with me are former poachers. We’ve protected nearly every leatherback egg—we’re lucky if we count 40 nests a season—and more than 90 percent of olive ridley nests. The olive ridley hatchlings all emerge 45 days after the mothers lay the eggs. That’s the moment I like best—all these tiny turtles on their way to the ocean. Some will make it; some won’t. It’s a hard world they have to face, but they’ve been doing it since the time of the dinosaurs. In 15 years they’ll come back to nest here, in the same place where they were born.