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A group of newly hatched olive ridley sea turtles, commonly known as Pacific ridley sea turtles, was penned by local conservationists. They will soon be released into the water. Sarai González, GPJ Mexico
Coronavirus

In Mexico, Baby Turtles May Become an Unlikely Casualty of the Coronavirus

Mexico

Sea turtle hatchlings in Mexico have long relied on tourists to protect them as they made the difficult journey from their nests to the sea. Now the tourists are gone, and local conservationists fear that many turtles won’t make it to the open ocean.

SAN PEDRO MIXTEPEC, MEXICO — Every year, throngs of newly hatched sea turtles make the journey from their sandy beach nests out to sea.

It’s a dangerous trek filled with myriad predators, including crabs, birds, racoons and dogs. The babies that make it to sea then have to contend with large fish, also a common predator, as they paddle furiously to get past coastal waters.

Just one of every 1,000 sea turtles survives to adulthood.

This year, conservationists here fear that far fewer hatchlings will make it to sea.

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A group of newly hatched sea turtles hurry toward the Pacific Ocean. It is estimated that just one of every 1,000 sea turtles lives to adulthood. Most of these turtles will be hunted or eaten by large fish before they can escape coastal waters.

Sarai González, GPJ Mexico

That’s because the numerous turtle species that nest here used to have the protection of tourists who flocked to the beautiful beaches in this region of Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico, every year to take part in community turtle camps. At the camps, promoted by the Mexican government and a number of local conservation groups, tourists learn to protect hatching turtles, and then help the frantic babies find their way into the water.

But this year, beaches are closed.

Mexico closed its beaches on March 31 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Tourists vanished and so did the main source of income for the area’s turtle conservation efforts.

According to the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, during the week of April 6-12, for example, the hotel occupancy rate here was down 98.8% compared to this time last year.

The purpose of the community turtle camps is to get people involved in conservation efforts, explains María Arely Penguilly, a biologist who’s been working as a field expert with camps along the Oaxacan coast.

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Hugolino Ibáñez, president of Vivemar, a local conservation group, checks on a turtle nest in the sand.

Sarai González, GPJ Mexico

Six of the seven known sea turtle species nest in Mexico, and since 1990 their capture has been illegal, to reduce their high risk of extinction.

“From the point of view of ecotourism, and thanks to the environmental education work that’s been done, people started to see that a turtle was worth more alive than dead,” Penguilly says.

But without tourists, conservation efforts are stalling.

“Just because we don’t have visitors for a conservation project doesn’t mean that we don’t have expenses or that there isn’t work to do,” says Édgar Noriega, technical advisor to two community ecotourism groups in the area.

Hugolino Ibáñez, president of Vivemar, another local conservation group, agrees.

“The monitoring of turtles must be continuous,” he says.

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Signs mark known turtle nests along the beach. The signs indicate the number of eggs in the nest and the date they are expected to hatch.

Sarai González, GPJ Mexico

Local organizations are looking for ways to save money and create alternative revenue streams, he says, like promoting turtle nest adoptions for a fee via social media and cutting back the hours that the turtle nests are monitored by staff.

But as long as the pandemic keeps beaches closed, the dangers to turtles will increase.

“We can’t abandon the beach,” says Ibáñez. “Because when people don’t have jobs, they also go after eggs and turtle meat to eat.”

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