Who stepped on the turtle?
Category : Uncategorized
Sea Turtles. Most species around the world are listed as endangered and although they are often protected by law, the law is rarely enforced. Aside from the market value of their eggs, meat, shells, and skin; fishing practices, habitat destruction, natural predators, and climate change make the survival rate of an average egg one percent on a good day.
With that knowledge, I arrived on the coast of Central America ready to work for and learn from a sea turtle conservation effort taking place at a local hotel.
My first reaction to what I witnessed was ‘oh f***’ . I saw a system that appeared broken -a system without rules, rights, wrongs, goods, or bads. I realized how little I understood about conservation efforts- even considering my years of education, professional work, and travel.
On my first night I was introduced to the poacher. A word loaded with darkness and judgment -so often applied from the outside, from a place of privilege onto a system without understanding. It is often assumed that the ‘poaching’ is done with no respect, solely for manipulated profit. But what if the poachers are good people? Making a living, supporting their families in a non-existent economy? What if they choose to sell eggs to a conservation program instead of a restaurant – at a lower profit? What if they choose to sell to a conservation program at a tourist hotel at a slightly better profit than a non profit funded ‘legitimate’ conservation project? How do we judge them then?
Over weeks I got to know this system just a little. I watched the ‘conservation’ hotel. Yes conservation, but when conservation efforts are manipulated to fuel tourism or also happen to provide the hotel with some regional clout or prestige, are the outcomes somehow less valuable? If the hotel program doesn’t abide by best management practices, but still contributes to overall conservation, is it equal to other efforts?
Add the role of the tourists to this complexity of turtles, hotels, and poachers. What if their interest in ‘saving the turtles’ also creates a system where turtle eggs are held behind a bar until the next tour group arrives so they can ‘bury the eggs’- as opposed to burying immediately – as the mother turtle was doing when the poachers intercepted? What if the tour group’s interest in and payment to ‘experience’ this also increases the number of people searching the beach at night for the mother turtles laying their eggs? Or touching, moving, or crowding the baby turtles as they are released into the tide at sunset?
One evening, a beer with a tourist group turned into an invite ’Do you want to come and look for turtles with us?”. My immediate response what ‘What? Hell no. Uh, we don’t do that here.”
Or so I thought. Then this person tells me that the person who is supposed to take them also happens to be someone I respect, at this point a close friend. Someone who cares for the earth. Takes care of the wounded pelicans and the baby turtles, the people around him.
My confusion, gut reaction, and ethics were on fire as I searched out this ‘guide,’ this friend of mine. In our mix of Spanglish I scrapped for reason, for the bigger picture. The response I received? “You don’t understand, this is part of what they pay for. It’s how it works. Things work better for you if you just support it.”
Turtles. Poachers. Hotels. Tourists. Friends. Me. My difficulty in accepting this information and the different value systems it implied. Where do I stand when my ethics seem in conflict with the company I keep and the people I work for?
A day later, at sunset I showed up late for the turtle release. The “Liberacion de Tortugas” as it is called, is beautiful and stressful. The baby turtles are perfectly beautiful and vulnerable as they fight the waves and current on their way to a short life in the ocean. The crowd, their feet, their cameras, are a perfectly intense example of unconsciousness -the crowding with cameras, trying to touch or move the turtles. In that moment, human feet are the greatest threat to survival the turtle’s have- not birds, not poachers, not climate change.
As I walk up, a young boy drops a soda bottle, predictably, he doesn’t pick it up. So I do. As I stand up I hear the group react. I feel the sensation under my foot at the same time. My heart sank – I felt the turtle under my heel.
The turtle didn’t die – at least not in that moment- and the guide, my friend, gently picked it up and took it out to the ocean. He chose to assure me it wasn’t dead, that it was swimming. Regardless, I knew in that moment I was learning. I was connecting the pieces of this story. This ‘lesson’ felt shitty, the self shaming judgement. Who was I to think I was somehow ‘different?’
Thank you, earth school, for another lesson in humility. A reminder that we are all part of the same whole, no better than or worse than the ‘other’.
The irony. Me, the trained environmentalist, my knowledge vs. my unconsciousness. A reminder that maybe there is no such thing as ‘right’. Only awareness, only consciousness. And that I, the conservationist, the one who often feels the most aware in many situations, at the end of the day was no better than or different than the poacher, the hotel, the tourist, or the friend.