When our group left Project Somos we swapped altitude for humidity, and construction for wildlife as we headed to the Guatemalan coast to check out the ARCAS Sea Turtle Conservation Project in El Hawaii. ARCAS is about as rustic and grassroots as you can get with their property which consists of 3 very simple buildings—an open building featuring a large room for working, a kitchen and a second level housing volunteers upstairs with mattresses and mosquito netting; and two volunteer homes set up with numerous beds in each.
Volunteers can either stay on the property as part of their experience or if they’d prefer more privacy or comfort, can stay at one of the hotels along the beach. We stayed at The Honolulu Hotel and chose it largely because it was an eco-lodge that was locally run and environmentally sustainable. We had an excellent stay there and I would highly recommend it.
ARCAS is totally reliant on volunteers and I was truly impressed by the amazing work this organization is doing against seemingly insurmountable odds. Each night during turtle season (the period when the mothers come to lay their eggs on the beach) ARCAS volunteers patrol an 8km stretch of beach trying to beat Palameros (aka turtle egg poachers) to any females coming onto the beach to nest. When a female decides to nest she digs a narrow hole in the ground approximately 40cm deep and begins dropping her eggs one at a time.
Whoever gets to the turtle first digs a tunnel to her eggs and literally catches them as they are dropping. The good news is the female is in a sort of trance so unless she’s physically touched or bright lights are shone on her, she is pretty unaware of what’s happening. The bad news is we heard some absolute horror stories from the volunteers about poachers who, if the female was taking too long or not nesting, would lift them upside down and shake them in an attempt to stress them into laying their eggs. In one incident earlier this summer, volunteers found a turtle cut open for the eggs and left to die on the beach. As volunteer Faye put it, “My entire summer of work was just wiped out by the death of that turtle.” Sadly, poaching is not illegal in Guatemala; however the Palameros are required to give either a 20% donation of the total or 12 eggs. On average the females lay about 100 eggs in a single nest so usually the best a volunteer can recover from them is 12.
After a long late night, the volunteers go back out to the beach around 4am to do a crawl count. They follow any turtle tracks they can find, double-check the nest for any eggs and record by GPS the locations. Based on the crawl count, a man from Fisheries who works with ARCAS will visit the distributers in the morning and try to collect more eggs. All of the eggs collected by ARCAS are brought back to their hatchery and once hatched, led back to the water. When you consider that only 1 out of every 1,000 eggs makes it to reproductive age before even having to deal with poachers, the future for the sea turtle certainly doesn’t look very hopeful. The Leatherbacks haven’t been back to El Hawaii in 2 years and there are only a few thousand of them left in existence.
There are so many things wrong with what’s happening there I’m not sure where to start. First, the consumption of eggs have nothing to do with the country’s culture or for survival, they are sold off to buyers who consider them an aphrodisiac. Boats out on the water that are catching turtles further out are killing them and then chopping them up for their meat in order to catch sharks for their fins! In essence, they are killing one endangered species to catch another. Finally, climate change is yet another issue the turtles have to contend with as a two degree temperature difference during the 3rd quarter of incubation determines the sex of a turtle. If global warming heats up the area by that much, they could potentially face having the female population wiped out. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more embarrassed to be a human being.
I’ve never had as raw an experience as working on this project with these courageous volunteers. Walking with them side by side on the moonlit beach as we raced against poachers standing in the dark that massively outnumbered us was both daunting and exhilarating and will forever be ingrained in my memory. It is without question the best way I’ve ever spent a Friday night. Kudos to the incredible volunteers that have the conviction and passion to get up every single night and then again a few hours later during these critical months—you are beyond inspiring and I’m humbled to have had the opportunity to experience it with you.
For more information on this project and how you can get involved visit www.govoluntouring.com