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Sea Turtle Activist Murdered in Costa Rica

Last week Friday, 26-year old Costa Rican environmentalist Jairo Mora Sandoval was kidnapped and killed while on a routine patrol to protect leatherback sea turtle eggs from local poachers. Sandoval, along with three young women from the United States and another from Spain were kidnapped by five masked men carrying rifles as they inspected leatherback nesting sites on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast.

The five conservation workers were taken to an abandoned home where Mora was separated from the women. The next morning his body was found on Moín beach, bound and beaten. According to the latest news from Costa Rica’s English language Tico Times, Mora died from head trauma and asphyxiation from sand.

Mora worked for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network(WIDECAST) at Moín, a beach near the town of Limon, monitoring the beach for leatherback sea turtles. The turtle eggs are thought to be an aphrodisiac and poachers can steal as many as 200 eggs in a night where they are then sold at local bars for about $1 each.  Nest monitoring patrols and public awareness campaigns conducted by groups like WIDECAST have proven effective in reducing egg poaching and usually the mere presence of observers on beaches is often enough to scare off poachers.

But in the past year poachers on the Caribbean coast have posed a greater threat.

Just last month, Mora posted on his Facebook page that he had placed a call for help to authorities after a night of poaching raids, writing: “Send messages to the police so they come to Moín beach … Tell them not to be afraid but to come armed… 60 turtles lost and there wasn’t even a single nest… we need help and fast.”

In April of last year, similar threatening encounters occurred as a group of turtle defenders who were monitoring nests were ambushed and tied up by masked men who stole a large clutch of eggs. After that, Mora and the director of WIDECAST, Vanessa Lizano, were sometimes followed by men on motorbikes carrying AK-47s. “He was held up at gunpoint, and they told him to back off and stop the walks,” Lizano told the Tico Times. “That was his first warning, and I guess his last.”

Tragic happenings like this will unfortunately also bring tragic consequences for the environment and the organizations working for its protection. Because most hands-on sea turtle conservation projects are run by non-governmental organizations, they are dependent on tourist volunteers to help conduct beach surveillance. The murder of a local conservationist and the kidnapping of international tourists is already impacting that work. Patrols at the site have been shut down and ecotourists and volunteers have cancelled upcoming reservations.

Costa Rica, has built its reputation as a mecca for ecotourism, as a nation committed to the protection of the environment, and as a safe place for tourists to visit. Tourism is one of the major drivers of Costa Rica’s economy, attracting around 2 million visitors a year, and revenues of approximately $2 billion, more than the value of the export of coffee and bananas combined. The sea turtle conservation model is critical to protecting nesting beaches and for the sake of the ecology and economy of Costa Rica, the Costa Rican government must bring the murderers to justice assuring everyone that Costa Rica beaches are safe for sea turtles and people.

So far Costa Rican authorities have pledged to find Mora’s murderers. Costa Rican Environment Minister René Castro says the government is considering making Moín Beach a protected area. “We will be using the proposal submitted by WIDECAST in order to formulate a plan for the creation of a protected area where Jairo worked,” Castro said.

We at the Sea Turtle Restoration Project have organized a coalition of organizations who are contributing to a REWARD FUND for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderers. The Justice for Jairo Reward Fund is expected to grow as more organizations and individuals learn about this heinous crime and want to help. Individuals can contribute to the reward fund at www.SeaTurtles.org/Donateforjustice

Several petitions, which together already have gathered more than 10,000 signatures in the past few days, are aimed at Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, calling for swift and decisive action to bring the perpetrators to justice. You can sign the petitions here.