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Original Issue


Poachers on the west coast of Nicaragua threaten the future of a species

"Jack! They come with a horse and load up sacks of turtle eggs." Balford Welcome was angry. "We been working all night long to save the eggs, and now they dig 'em up and take 'em away. They cannot do that. That's too many turtles, mon. They leave no eggs at all, leave nothin' for the years."

I crawled out of my tent, yawning at the glassy sea and at Chococente beach, a government preserve on Nicaragua's west coast. Welcome didn't notice the view. "We do not want to see Nicaragua turn into another Jamaica—no fish, no lobster." His voice rose to shrillness. "We see it go to nothin' there when they take and take and take. Now they do the same thing to the turtles. They don't learn nothing!"

Welcome, a commercial fisherman, was attending a two-week seminar on marine biology sponsored by the University of Central America in Managua. He and a dozen other students and instructors—I was one of the latter—had dug eggs all night and counted and relocated them to the safety of the government hatchery here at Chococente.

It was dawn on a November day in the midst of the Pacific ridley sea turtles' egg-laying season. Welcome stood there expectantly, looking at me. "Well, do something about it," I shouted above the surf. "After all, it's your country. Go get the guards up. Go with them, and get them to do their job."

Welcome ran to the guardhouse and shook the three exhausted men sleeping inside. They too had been up all night, helping us. A guard in his undershirt sleepily rubbed his eyes and picked up his automatic rifle. Welcome pointed to the distant silhouettes in the early morning light, the hueveros—egg harvesters—down the beach.

Welcome was furious. After working all night to protect turtle eggs, he was not about to stand by while poachers stole thousands more off the beach. Working in four-hour shifts, we had trekked up and down a 1¼-mile stretch of beach, taking eggs to the fenced-off stretch of sand in front of the guard station, where they could be reburied and protected until they hatched. Though Chococente beach is a designated preserve, we had seen people moving in the semidarkness, shadows on horseback, hueveros.

It was not surprising. Until two years ago the government paid the hueveros to bring the eggs to the hatchery. Bowing to centuries of tradition, it allowed local residents to take eggs for private use in any month except November, the peak of the laying season, when more than 5,000 turtles come ashore.

All in all, it was a good program, balancing conservation and human need. But after a U.S. trade embargo was imposed on Nicaragua in 1985, money to buy the hueveros' harvest disappeared. The staff of the Nicaraguan natural resources agency also had to be cut, so there was no longer enough manpower to protect the beach.

A couple of weeks before our visit, some poachers had broken into the hatchery and smashed some eggs to show what they thought of the efforts to keep poachers off the beach. Now there were the makings of a far more serious incident.

The guards, Welcome and several other students hiked down the beach. The guards told the poachers that the season was closed, and asked them to leave. It did little good; the hueveros were used to having their own way. There were at least 20 of them on the beach, men who had worked hard all of their lives, fishing and farming for almost no money. Each carried a three-foot-long stick with which to stab into the ground in search of buried turtle eggs.

"We only take enough to feed our families," one man protested. "We are hungry." "Then why do you come with those sacks and horses?" Welcome demanded. "You got more eggs than you can feed to 10 families. You take them to the market, that's what you do."

One of the poachers just sat back on his haunches grinning, a splinter between his teeth. But others glared hostilely. All seemed amazed at this stranger who was ranting and raving in an accent that identified him as coming from the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. "It's easy for you to say," said one of the hueveros. "You're all getting a salary. We're starving."

"You think we like being here?" replied one of the guards. "We don't get paid to do this work. We do it to help save the turtles." That was certainly true. The guards had come from Managua, and they had worked all night for no extra pay.

Another guard, tight-lipped and obviously not enjoying the situation, added, "We're here, and we talk to you like brothers; we don't come down with the military. And what do you do? You take the female off her nest right when she's laying, and she gets disoriented and ends up in the mangroves, and you expect her to live?"

Some of the hueveros looked guilty; they said nothing. The guard went on: "You've just got five more days before the season opens back up. It's only five days, not five years—five days you have to obey the law. Is that too much to ask?"

The debate went on for nearly an hour as the sun rose above the beach and the morning mist burned away. The hueveros grew tired of standing in the hot sun. They saw that the guards and the students weren't going to budge. So, reluctantly, they started packing up. Suddenly a wiry little man with a mustache grabbed his machete, slapped it loudly against his leg, stomped past Welcome and furiously whacked the back end of his white horse with the flat of the blade, causing the horse to rear. The man moved 15 or 20 feet away, jammed his stick into the sand and started digging for turtle eggs.

Welcome bellowed with outrage and distress, "What are you doing, mon? Have you not listened to a thing we said?"

"To hell with you," the wiry man replied. "I come a long way. This is my living, and I'm going to take the eggs."

Welcome grabbed a rifle from a startled guard and fired a quick burst of shots into the sand directly in front of the huevero. The sand erupted from the impact of the bullets.

The huevero rose stiffly and snarled at Welcome. "Go ahead and shoot me," he said. "You black man, you outsiders from the Atlantic, coming here to tell us what to do. It's no business of yours. Go back to where you come from." Defiantly he went back to scooping sand from the hole. Everyone watched, waiting to see what Welcome would do.

The moment had the potential for tragedy: Latin machismo, 300 years of bad blood and war between the English-speaking blacks of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast and the natives of the Spanish-speaking areas of the country (the debate was being carried on in Spanish, which Welcome translated for me later), an uneasy truce between the guerrilla forces of the Atlantic region and the soon-to-be-voted-down Sandinista government, and a sprinkling of Americans like myself, who were doubtess thought to be working for the CIA.

Welcome's barrel chest swelled; his honor was at stake. "You keep on, and I will shoot you," he said, his voice rising shrilly. Abruptly he raised the rifle and let loose six more rounds, each coming closer, until the sand was practically flying in the huevero's face.

"While I am here, you will not take eggs," Welcome said. "When I am gone, you do what you want, but these little turtles arc going back to the sea."

After what seemed an eternity, the huevero rose and backed away—a slow, purposeful retreat. Escorted by the guards, the group of poachers left the beach, leading horses with empty packs.

As we hiked back to camp, I asked Welcome what he would have done had the man kept on digging. "I do not know," he said. He was shaking. "I never shoot no one. I was in the revolution. I was in the war. I carried a gun all over creation, but I never fire a shot the whole time.... Just now was the only time. I told them and told them and begged them not to, and, mon, they make me vexed."

I shook my head and said, "They have nothing. They're trying to survive, too."

"But mon, after they take the last turtle egg, it just be worse. They still have nothin' and the turtles be gone. Then what? Sit there on the flat of their ass with nothing to do."

We walked the rest of the way back to camp in silence.



Jack Rudloe is a Florida-based naturalist who frequently writes for this magazine.