Sea Turtle Rangers, Part 1 is the first in a series by turtle researcher and PhD candidate Christine Figgener: Chris has taken valuable time during turtle nesting season in Costa Rica to stop and share her thought-provoking personal insights into the world of these unsung local heroes of marine conservation. —
Homage to the Unsung Heroes of Sea Turtle Conservation
This piece is dedicated to the local men and women that are the pillars of most sea turtle conservation projects, but usually remain in the shadows, in the most literal sense of the word. Rain or shine, these are the men and women that are on the beach every single night, and good amounts of their day, during the six months of each nesting season.(photo – Christine Figgener)
They are patrolling the beaches for nesting females to prevent poachers from stealing eggs and from killing mothers. These turtle protectors pass their days building hatcheries, cleaning the beach with volunteers, maintaining the research stations and the equipment, but are rarely the people who bathe in the acknowledgement and admiration of the international sea turtle world.
The Rangers have a vital richness of field know-how!
This homage is a shout out to the men and women that have taught me everything I know about sea turtle behaviour on nesting beaches, how to find the nest of a sea turtle that I walked right by, and how to hide nests so poachers will not find them. (photo – FB Wilberth Villachica)
It is also my attempt to make amends for the sometimes arrogant disregard that my kind (biologists) have for the work these turtle guardians carry out.
Guardians of the Turtles
Some biologists might patronizingly call them “turtle taggers” or “turtle flippers”, but they are really the guardians of the turtles, the rocks of calm and wisdom in the otherwise sometimes overwhelming wilds of our jungle beaches, and definitely the right hand of us biologists, that would otherwise traipse around like lost puppies, because all the book knowledge of the world will not replace the field skills and local knowledge these guys have of their beach and their turtles. (photo – Christine Figgener)
They go by different names in different languages and countries and regions. Here in Costa Rica they are actually called the “local research assistant”. They are sea turtle rangers that are working alongside the biologists and international volunteers in the sea turtle conservation projects and add a depth of wisdom to our work that is not captured behind the walls of academia.
Using Poachers Against Poachers
Our sea turtle rangers are usually from rural communities adjacent to sea turtle nesting beaches, from simple families with little economical wealth. The older generation of assistants usually started their sea turtle career as poachers, providing for their families either with sea turtle eggs or money made from selling sea turtle eggs. Many projects started to hire these veterans of the beach and were able to take advantage of their vast array of field know-how, while providing them a steady income and health insurance for their families. The concept to use poachers against poachers is becoming mainstream. (photo – Christine Figgener)
The newer generation are usually youngsters that grew up around a sea turtle conservation project and, at one point, started to tag along on night patrols with their dad, uncle, or brother. If they liked it, they usually stayed on, becoming research assistants themselves. Many of our research assistants are not staying on one nesting beach, but are hired during the off-season of “their” nesting beach by other sea turtle conservation projects elsewhere in the country.
So what compels them to continue working in sea turtle conservation? I do not claim I know the absolute answer to this question, but being a sea turtle protector brings a lot of respect from the people in their communities. Working with people from all over the world gives them a status that would have been otherwise difficult to obtain for someone without a high school degree, especially since a different life would likely see them working in a nearby banana plantation. (photo – Christine Figgener)
It might also have something to do with the energy that’s generated when people from all over the world and all walks of life come together with a common goal of protecting sea turtles in their own backyard and turtles are shown respect too.
By Christine Figgener, a Blue Ocean Network contributor
Stay Tuned for More Turtle Talk
Part 2 of Sea Turtle Rangers explores what an average day of a ranger is like and what they are required to do during the nesting season to patrol the beaches and protect the most vulnerable. Christine highlights Wilberth, a sea turtle hero who moved from poacher to catching poachers.
About the Author
Christine Figgener is a marine biologist that has been working in community-based sea turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica since 2007. A PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography at Texas A&M, Chris has worked for several local and international NGOs in Latin America. Chris caused a stir in 2015 when she and her team discovered a straw stuck in a turtle’s nose; They shared the video, turning the sea turtle into a poster child and helped an eco-movement go viral.
In the midst of all this turtle activity, Chris co-founded COASTS (Costa Rican Alliance for Sea Turtle Conservation and Science), a grass-roots organization aimed at empowering the next generation of local scientists and stakeholders to become active in sea turtle conservation throughout Costa Rica.
Blue Ocean Network is proud to support the high impact PhD research Chris is doing, and YOU CAN TOO! Lend a hand (or a flipper!) at this GoFundme Campaign.
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