The Legacy of Murdered Sea Turtle Conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval

Conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval (pictured) was murdered in Costa Rica on May 31. Photograph courtesy Christine Figgener, Baulas y Negras Ostional
Conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval (pictured) was murdered in Costa Rica on May 31. Photograph courtesy Christine Figgener, Baulas y Negras Ostional

By Brad Nahill, SEE Turtles

On Friday, May 31st, while returning from a long night walking a turtle nesting beach near the city of Limón, young Costa Rican conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval was abducted by unknown assailants, beaten, and murdered.

The beach where Mora Sandoval worked is a hot spot for nesting by the critically endangered leatherback, but also well-known for poaching and as a transfer point for drugs entering Costa Rica. This beach has now become a flash point for the direction that Costa Rica will go as a country.

(See “Costa Rican Murder Shines Light on Poaching, Drug Nexus“)

The brave young man had recently spoken out to the media and on social media about the lack of government support for the conservationists on this beach. With a Ministry of Environment tolerant of the illegal trade in sea turtle eggs, and without effective enforcement over a flourishing black market, efforts by local police and Coast Guard have routinely fallen short of what is needed to safeguard people working tirelessly to protect the nation’s natural treasures.

It was in this context that a small group of conservationists were left on their own against the poachers and drug runners. They had received threats, but never thought their work to protect endangered turtles would result in a tragedy like this.

I spent two years of my life walking Costa Rica’s turtle beaches. I know what it’s like to be in the dark, with little to defend yourself. I worked for the same organization that Jairo worked for, learning from Didiher Chacón, Country Coordinator and Director of Latin American Programs for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) and one of the country’s leading conservationists.

I never felt threatened on those beaches, but that experience was challenging enough, dealing with rain, insects, and more to make sure the nests were protected.

Costa Rica is known around the world as the place where ecotourism was born. The country has beautiful beaches, lush tropical forests, and the most species of wildlife per kilometer in the world according to some. Sea turtles are a main attraction, nesting on dozens of beaches on both coasts and attracting thousands of people each year to see them nesting.

Hundreds of people come to volunteer annually on these beaches without incident, spending their time, money, and sweat with the goal of contributing to the conservation of these incredible animals.

The volunteers and travelers that come to these beaches are critical, now more than ever, to the success of efforts to protect sea turtles in Costa Rica and around the world. The heavy lifting of turtle conservation work in Costa Rica is not done by the government. Instead, dozens of non-profit organizations toil long hours, for very little income, to make sure the eggs, meat, and shells are not collected for sale on the black market.

Jairo Mora Sandoval speaking with local children in Costa Rica.
Jairo Mora Sandoval speaking with local children. Photo: WIDECAST

Rarely do the police, Coast Guard, or rangers from the Ministry of the Environment walk the beaches or enforce the laws. Poachers are caught red-handed and go without prosecution. Fortunately, most of the country’s nesting beaches do not have the danger of Moin Beach and conservationists and volunteers can safely walk the beach without worry of danger.

When the government of Costa Rica spends millions of dollars to market itself as a wildlife paradise but next to nothing to protect that wildlife, will the volunteers and tourists still come? President Chinchilla must show the world that they will not stand silent when the people most dedicated to protecting the country’s natural resources are cut down for speaking out.

Jairo’s family – and his many friends and colleagues – will never be the same, but some good can come from this. The government can name Moin Beach a National Park in his honor, securing this beach for both the turtles and the conservationists and taking away an entry point for drugs.

Each of us who shares Jairo’s passion for biodiversity conservation work can help to ensure that the world never forgets his contribution to Costa Rica’s sea turtles.  For those who would like to help ensure Jairo’s legacy lives on, here are a few ways to participate:

Donate to the Jairo Mora Sandoval Memorial Fund: This money will be used to support his family, create a National Park in his honor, and continue his legacy. 100% of donations will go to the fund (no administrative fees will be taken) and the first $3,000 will be matched by WIDECAST, SEE Turtles, and EcoTeach. The Fund is managed by our partners The Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Sign a Petition: Encourage Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla to ensure that the killers are caught and to ensure the safety of all of the country’s conservationists.

Are Costa Rica’s Beaches Safe? Blog post from SEE Turtles on whether traveling to Costa Rica to see sea turtles is safe for travelers.

Brad Nahill is Director & Co-Founder of SEE Turtles, which supports community-based sea turtle conservation organizations in Latin America through volunteering, ecotourism, education, advocacy, and financial support. To date, SEE Turtles has generated more than $400,000 in support for community-based turtle conservation projects through volunteering, tours, donations, and more. SEE Turtles is a project of The Ocean Foundation and is supported by National Geographic’s Conservation Trust.

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