We all know that people kill majestic animals to hack off their tusks and horns. Here at Wildlife Watch, we spotlight these well-known crimes. But we also expose lesser known wildlife crimes. Take the egg poaching of olive ridley sea turtles. At certain times of the year, thousands of them invade the shores of Mexico, Costa Rica, India, Panama, and Nicaragua to dig nests and lay about 100 eggs each.
This phenomenon, called arribada, also brings out local egg hunters. In Morro Ayuta, a beach on the Pacific coast of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, they snatch up the golf-ball-size eggs and can sell them to vendors in nearby markets for two dollars per 100 eggs. People consider the eggs a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, and they appear on the menus in local restaurants.
Filmmaker John Dickie spent two weeks in the area exploring the practice. He documented it in “Stealing Turtle Eggs Got People Shot, But The Thievery Continues,” the first film produced for National Geographic as part of its pilot series of investigative mini documentaries. “I wanted to do a film that kind of covered both sides of it,” Dickie told our Special Investigations Unit. “I just felt that it made an amazing story.”
And a complex one. On the one hand, poachers threaten the turtles. The species once hovered on the brink of extinction in Mexico, but conservation measures and a government crackdown on poaching has helped increase the population.
People who violate Mexico’s 1990 ban on sea turtle hunting can face up to nine years in prison. Or worse: One man interviewed in the film said he quit poaching after he was shot. From July to mid-September 2015, authorities seized a reported 14,000 eggs in Morro Ayuta and the neighboring beach of Escobilla, and one person was detained.
The numbers of olive ridley turtles have halved since the 1960s, because of poaching and incidental capture in fishing gear. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the species as a whole as “vulnerable,” meaning they’re at a high risk of extinction. But the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service categorizes olive ridley turtles that breed in the Pacific coast of Mexico as “endangered.”
For villagers, poaching turtle eggs provides a source of income they can’t find elsewhere. “There’s no work,” says one man featured in the documentary. “If there were jobs, why the hell would I come and do this?”
The egg hunters say that as long as the market thrives, they’ll keep finding and selling eggs—unless the government can offer them an alternative. “The people there get a bad reputation because they’re painted as criminals for stealing the eggs,” Dickie says. “I think that’s pretty unfair. These are rural, poor communities.”
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Jani Actman on Twitter.