An environmentalist fighting for endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica has been found dead, suspected killed by sea turtle poachers. Jairo Mora Sandoval, a noted Costa Rican environmentalist, was a biology student who worked for the state-sponsored Paradero Eco-Tour, an animal rescue group and turtle sanctuary. Mora Sandoval also worked as a volunteer with the nonprofit environmental group Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), which works to protect sea turtles and their eggs across Central America. Mora Sandoval worked particularly to protect leatherback turtle nests from poachers and smugglers in Moin beach in Limon province. He was reported found badly beaten and shot in the head, face down with his hands tied on Moin beach, which lies 105 miles east of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. Sandoval was 26.
Vanessa Lizano, the owner of the turtle sanctuary where Mora Sandoval worked, told the BBC that the 26-year old had been killed because of his work. “Jairo went on patrol with some volunteers and they were attacked by armed men. It was him they wanted, because he was the one who was always looking after the nests.” Lizano told the BBC that poachers in Costa Rica can make up to $300 per day smuggling turtle eggs and selling them for $1 each, often to drug dealers, on the black market. Lizano said that employees had received many threats over the years due to their work at the sanctuary.
Costa Rica’s beaches are home to the nesting sites of four species of sea turtles, leatherback, hawksbill, Olive Ridley, and green sea turtles, all of which are endangered. It has been illegal to remove turtle eggs from beaches in Costa Rica since 1996, yet egg poaching is actually up 30 percent since the law was put in place, Beth Adubato, New York Institute of Technology criminologist interested in crimes against wildlife, explained to NBC News last month. Many of the culprits are Panamanians who cross the border and remove turtle eggs by the truckload, explained Adubato. Sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, where some cultures consider them aphrodisiacs, while others believe that eating the eggs leads to a long life. There’s no evidence to suggest either of these claims, and turtle eggs may actually be unsafe for human consumption due to unsafe levels of heavy metals, Adubato explained.
Didiher Chacon, WIDECAST’s Costa Rica Coordinator, told San Jose’s Tico Times that the program has seen an increase in the number of poachers in recent years, and that he felt “very hurt” by Mora Sandoval’s death. “He could walk 20 kilometers each night to save nests,” Chacon told Efe news agency. “It’s not possible that citizens who protect nature have to suffer from this type of attacks.”
The U.S. Embassy to Costa Rica called Mora Sandoval’s killing “senseless,” and stated that the student was “a committed Costa Rican environmentalist who was sounding the alarms about threats received from anti-wildlife criminal groups and drug traffickers.” The Tico Times reports that WIDECAST has closed the beach monitoring program following the incident, and that it has said that it will no longer send staff or volunteers to monitor the beach. “We can’t risk human lives for this project,” Chacon told the Tico Times. “But this is probably the exact result that the killers were hoping for.”