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Scrambled Turtle Eggs for Sex?

Turtles on the move to lay their eggs and return to the ocean.

© Ocean Actions

The following photographs of turtle eggs being taken, probably to be sold as aphrodisiacs, will no doubt make any conservation-minded person sick. They were taken at the beach at Ostional on Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Peninsula.

After the turtles come the villagers dig in search of turtle eggs.

© 2010 Ocean Actions
Members of the co-op dig deep.

© 2010 Ocean Actions

But according to the Hoax-Slayer internet site, and others, it’s actually a Costa Rican government-sponsored conservation effort, and it’s protecting the olive Ridley turtles. It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?

Way back in ’98, National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett tried to explain it:

The age-old belief in the aphrodisiac power of turtle eggs sustains a thriving black market for the forbidden ovum throughout Latin America. Most countries have banned the collection of these eggs because the world’s eight sea turtle species are endangered by disease, incidental capture in fishing nets, disturbance of nesting areas, and poaching of eggs and turtles. But in the coastal town of Ostional, located on Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Peninsula, a 13-year-old project has helped stabilize the population of the olive Ridley sea turtle. The government has, in essence, legalized poaching.

For 10 months of the year, usually around the third quarter of the moon, olive Ridleys swim by the hundreds of thousands to a single mile of beach at Ostional in an ancient reproductive rite little understood by scientists. They scuttle onto the sand, dig a hole with their flippers, and drop in an average of 100 leathery, white eggs the size of ping pong balls. Over the course of a five-day "arribada," literally, an arrival, nesting females will leave as many as 10 million eggs in the black, volcanic sand. Mass nesting is nature’s way of ensuring that after the turkey vultures, feral dogs and raccoons have eaten all the fresh eggs they want, there will be enough left over to produce a sustainable population of olive Ridleys.

In the early 1980s, scientists learned that because of limited space on the beach, females arriving later destroy the first laid eggs. The researchers wondered: why not let poachers have the doomed eggs?

"What we have done is turn people into predators," says Dr. Anny Chavez, a sea turtle biologist and one of the founders of the Ostional project, which is world famous among turtle activists.

Under a law written especially for Ostional, the government allows an egg harvesting cooperative to collect all they can during the first 36 hours of every ‘arribada’. Co-op members then truck the eggs around the country, selling them to bars and restaurants. In return, the community must protect the olive Ridley. Co-op members clean debris from the nesting areas and patrol the beach day and night for poachers."

The official claim is that the removal of the first batch of eggs helps later batches hatch.

© 2010 Ocean Actions

An article about the olive Ridley turtle published on the Ocean Actions seemed to support this:

The capacity of the half-mile Ostional beach is insufficient for the large number of nesting turtles and as a result many clutches are destroyed in the nesting process. As thousands upon thousands of olive Ridley turtles climb on to a stretch of Playa Ostional, 70-80% of previously laid nests are crushed or dug up during the subsequent nesting. It is for this reason that the Egg Harvest Project is justified. Villagers wait and watch, harvesting the eggs laid in the first day and half of the ‘arribada’.

Over the years this practice has proven to increase the percentage of successful hatching by as much as 20%. Assessing a sea turtle population is a challenge, but nesting data in Ostional indicate a stable population. A major contribution to the success of the Egg Harvest Project is the lack of decomposing eggs. If left unharvested, the early nests that are destroyed by later nesting females act as a source of bacteria that can contaminate the later nests.

Are the villagers really ‘saving’ the olive Ridley turtles by selling their eggs to bars and restaurants as aphrodisiacs?

© 2010 Ocean Actions

We’re not experts on conservation or turtles, but it seems to us there is a giant hole in this logic. If the villagers collected the early eggs for nurturing and eventual hatching, as opposed to selling them in bars and restaurants as some kind of natural Viagra, it seems to us that the live Ridley turtle population might soar as opposed to merely remaining stable. Then, too, in Third World countries where poverty and corruption are endemic, it seems to us that the foxes have been put in charge of the henhouse.

So what do you think? Email your thoughts to Richard.

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