Ecotourism Helps Promote Sea Turtle Conservation in Mexico
Poached and hunted for their shells, meat and eggs, sea turtles are considered a lucrative commodity on Mexico’s black market. More than 35,000 are “slaughtered” off the coast of Baja California Sur each year, making six out of the seven subspecies of sea turtles endangered, according to WILDCOAST—an international ecosystems and wildlife conservation team. While the illegal practices of harvesting or consuming sea turtles has yet to stop, ecotourism is one-way grassroots organizations and sustainable travel companies raise awareness and promote the survival of such sea life.
The seven species of sea turtles—flatback, green turtle, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback, loggerhead and olive ridley—inhabit the world’s oceans except the Arctic. For the most part, sea turtles’ habitats never overlap; each species swims in distinctly different areas and possesses unique characteristics. Since the Mexican government banned the harvesting of sea turtles in 1990, they are the only remaining species of “ancient reptiles,” dating back 200 million years when dinosaurs walked the earth, according to the Association for the Protection of the Environment and the Marine Turtle in Southern Baja (ASUPMATOMA).
ASUPMATOMA, a non-profit organization, is dedicated to the protection of endangered sea turtles off the coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. With five out of the seven subspecies of sea turtles inhabiting the ocean and beaches of Baja California Sur, this region is a vital nesting habitat and feeding ground for the species, according to ASUPMATOMA. But as “rapid land development, pollution and illegal hunting and fishing practices” continue to endanger sea turtles, many conservation projects, formed by grassroots organizations and travel companies, rely on ecotourism to promote sea turtle conservation.
One travel company, RED Sustainable Travel—a leader in conservation adventures—was founded through the integration of conservation and “socioeconomic well-being.” The company, which is based out of La Paz in Baja California Sur, aims to bring people to the center of conservation and is committed to making local people the “solution to long-term environmental issues.”
RED Sustainable Travel's focus is to “create sustainable economic alternatives to poaching or hunting sea turtles in local communities,” Jaime Campos, communications and project coordinator, said.
“Ecotourism changes both locals’ and travelers’ experiences by their direct participation such as in our sea turtle conservation efforts,” Campos said. “The process of getting involved with conservation is a cultural link to our efforts.”
The company transitions conservation projects into conservation adventures or trips by promoting ecotourism in several rural coastal communities in Baja California Sur including Cabo Pulmo, Las Animas, Punta Abreojos, Verde Camacho and Magdelena Bay. One of their featured trips, Magdalena Bay Sea Turtle Conservation Adventure, attracts travelers from all over the world to take part in “conservative-based volunteer work.” The trip helps support an ongoing research project conducted by their “brother organization,” Grupo Tortuguero, a worldwide network of individuals, communities, organizations and institutions focused on sea turtle conservation, Campos said.
The two-day trip teaches travelers about the “biology of sea turtles, their important ecological function” and the threats that cause the endangerment. The monitoring process of the trip allows travelers a closer look at the species. Boats carry them through Magdalena Bay—a natural habitat for sea turtles—and, together with trained guides, travelers capture sea turtles, weigh, measure and tag them for research purposes, and then release them back into the bay.
In turn, the trip’s efforts provide recorded data “about the health, migration patterns and habitat use of sea turtles in Magdalena Bay,” Campos said. He went on to say that the information collected on each trip is used in studies and by policymakers “to make strategic decisions towards the species' conservation.” The trip’s fees also help RED Sustainable Travel fund a local children’s education program in an effort to educate them about sea turtle conservation starting at a young age, Campos said.
“Children in the local community learn about sea turtles and their habitat, which helps them get engaged in conservation,” he said. “We educate children about the benefits of sea turtles because we feel the child will have a strong influence on their parents and get them involved too.”
Not only are sustainable travel companies in Baja California Sur providing travelers with sea turtle conservation trips, most of Mexico’s coastal communities promote ecotourism and sustainable travel. And more travelers are participating in such conservation trips.
Sherry Viray, travel enthusiast, spent several days along the beach of Mazunte in Oaxaca, Mexico learning about the endangered sea turtles native to that region and shared her experience on her blog, Colorful Footsteps.
“I’ve always believed that the hallmark of a great society is one, which protects those that cannot protect themselves,” Varay said in her story. “So the next time you are in Mexico, head to Mazunte to play with the native sea turtles and see for yourself why they're worth saving.”
As sea turtles continue to decline at an “alarming rate,” ecotourism provides the social and environmental commitment needed in sea turtle preservation, Campos said.
“It is an altogether different travel experience,” Campos said. “Travelers leave the trip having made new friends and discovering their inner-conservationist.”