by Wallace ‘J.’ Nichols, Ph.D., Research Associate, California Academy of Sciences; Director, LiVEBLUE a project of The Ocean Foundation
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J. Nichols (L) and Julio Solis (R) with rescued male hawksbill turtle
Fifteen years ago the hawksbill sea turtle in my hands would have been hog-tied, whisked hundreds of miles, slaughtered and carved into trinkets.
Today, it swam free.
On Baja’s Pacific coast, an adult male hawksbill sea turtle found its way into a fisherman’s net. In the past, for the fisherman anyway, such a thing would have been considered a stroke of good luck. The endless demand for turtle meat, eggs, skin and shell on the black market can provide a nice payday to anyone willing to endure the low-level risk of being caught.
Hawksbill turtles, once common, are now the rarest of the rare due to decades of being hunted for their beautiful shells, which get carved into combs, broaches, and other adornments.
These days, however, a Mexican grassroots conservation movement called Grupo Tortuguero has challenged the old ways and shaken things up a bit. A network of thousands of fishermen, women and children count themselves among its ranks.
Noe de la Toba, the fisherman who caught this turtle, is the nephew of the local lighthouse keeper who is a sea turtle champion himself. Noe contacted Aaron Esliman the director of Grupo Tortuguero. Esliman dispatched a call, an email and several facebook messages to network members throughout the region, who responded immediately. The turtle was swiftly moved by another fisherman to the nearby office of Vigilantes de Bahia Magdalena, where a team led by Julio Solis, a former turtle hunter himself, took care of the turtle, checking it for injuries. The turtle was measured and weighed, ID tagged and then quickly returned to the ocean. Images and details were shared immediately on Facebook and Twitter, on websites and over beers.
The fishermen involved weren’t paid. They just did it. It was no one’s “job”, but it was everyone’s responsibility. They weren’t motivated by fear or money, but pride, dignity and camaraderie instead.
People just like them are rescuing animals every day. Thousands of sea turtles are saved each year. The number of sea turtles in Baja’s ocean has been on the rise. One turtle rescue at a time.
Fifteen years ago experts had written off Baja’s sea turtles. The population was too small and the pressures on them too great, the thinking went. And yet, the survival of this one turtle tells a very different story.
If the survival of endangered species is just a battle of the budgets, they — and we — will lose. But if it’s a matter of will, commitment and love, I’ll put my bet on the turtles to win.
The hope conveyed in this turtle story is embodied by Julio Solis and beautifully described in his own words in the award winning short film by the good folks at MoveShake.org.
The hope we have for the restoration of endangered wildlife is the motivation behind our new online magazine, WildHope. It launches soon and highlights compelling wildlife conservation success stories and moves you can make to create more. I hope you will check it out. We have come a long way indeed.
As we watched that lucky hawksbill swim gracefully into deeper water, we all felt good, optimistic and grateful. It was a moment of joy, not because one turtle was saved, but because we understood that this one experience just might be a trend, a movement, a collective shift. And because a world with sea turtles is better than a world without them.