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Uphill battle to save Mexican sea turtles

A horseback-riding gang wields Kalashnikov rifles to drive away police and unarmed environmental activists in Mexico trying to protect endangered sea turtles.
Poachers along the beach in San Valentin, Mexico, leave behind turtle shells, taking the meat and any eggs they can find.
Poachers along the beach in San Valentin, Mexico, leave behind turtle shells, taking the meat and any eggs they can find.Natalia Parra / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Laws barring the killing of protected sea turtles and the sale of their eggs have been as effective as anti-drug trafficking programs: driving the practice underground but failing to stop it.

The latest threat is a horseback-riding gang whose members wield Kalashnikov rifles to drive away police and unarmed environmental activists.

Centuries-old traditions make the turtles, and especially their eggs, highly prized in Mexico, where officials have spent decades trying to protect the sea creatures.

Turtle eggs can still be found at rural markets and restaurants in many parts of southern Mexico, though they are sometimes kept out of sight until buyers ask for them.

High price, highly prized
Families living along the coast have a long tradition of dining on turtle meat and eggs, and they have become prized meals at gatherings such as weddings and political functions because of their high price.

Programs designed to provide alternate livelihoods for local residents who traditionally hunted the turtles have helped reduce — but not eliminate — the threat.

“It is difficult to get to San Valentin beach because of the presence of armed people who, in addition to committing other crimes such as drug trafficking, set themselves to preying on the turtles and their eggs,” said Miguel Angel Calzada Adame, who represents the federal environmental prosecutor’s office for Guerrero state.

He said it was difficult for his inspectors to enter the area without collaboration from other law enforcement agencies “because we do not carry arms.”

On both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, sea turtles regularly emerge from the sea, crawl up the beach and lay their eggs — a point at which they are extremely vulnerable.

Most eggs poached
According to local officials, only about 40 percent of the eggs escape poachers at San Valentin, a 12-mile long beach near fruit orchards and virgin jungle in Petatlan, 100 miles northwest of Acapulco.

Mayor Javier Rodriguez Aceves said a 22-person turtle protection team has been unable to stop raids by a group of about 10 men arriving on horseback with Kalashnikov rifles.

Rodriguez said the group also rustles livestock and carries out assaults in the city.

The president of the San Valentin turtle protection team, Raul Lopez Osorio, said he needs more help from the armed forces and state and local authorities.

While those agencies often have teams trying to protect turtles, the task involves a vast stretch of seacoast, much of it remote.

One member of the local team showed reporters hundreds of shells of turtles killed by a blow to the head.

“It’s a very cruel death,” Mario Espinoza Amaro said. “They cry, shriek like the squawking of birds and bleed to death.”

During a campaign against turtle smugglers in the late 1990s, the environmental prosecutor’s office repeatedly announced interceptions of shipments containing tens of thousands of contraband turtle eggs.