By Richard Conniff
It is one of nature’s great spectacles. On certain nights of the year, huge numbers of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) mass in the Pacific Ocean just off the beach at Ostional, Costa Rica. Next, tens of thousands of females come clambering ashore over two or three nights to lay their eggs in the sand. These mass nesting events, called arribadas, may occur a half-dozen times over the course of a year on the beach of the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge. And each time, for the first two days, local villagers come out to harvest and sell as many eggs as they can lay their hands on. And it is entirely legal.
The harvest may seem particularly shocking given that Costa Rica has carefully cultivated a reputation as a green destination. On the opposite coast, moreover, a conservationist was murdered earlier this year while trying to prevent poachers from raiding the nests of another sea turtle species. (Police recently arrested suspects, said to be known turtle egg poachers, in that killing.)
But Ostional is different, and for its many supporters, it constitutes an important success for community-based conservation, which is the controversial idea that you can protect a natural resource by engaging the local population to manage and profit from it. Proponents of community-based conservation regularly do battle—one scientist calls it “a dialog of the deaf”—with old-school proponents of fencing in wildlife and fencing out locals. And the fencing crowd likes to point out that community-based programs have frequently failed.
But the Ostional egg harvesting project has been operating for more 25 years now, and the turtles seem to be thriving. It started in the early 1980s, when local villagers realized that egg harvesting by their own community and neighboring villages was out of control. More....