Brutal Murder of a Young Turtle Protector

Researched by E.M. Fay

Jairo Mora Sandoval, a 26-year-old biology student and wildlife conservationist, had dedicated himself to the cause of saving the critically endangered leatherback turtles of his homeland, Costa Rica. Tragically, his valiant work to stop the theft of turtle eggs by gangs of criminals resulted in his own death at the hands of the same people he was fighting on behalf of the turtles.

In April, Jairo posted a poignant and urgent message on his Facebook page, imploring his friends to send the police to Moin beach, on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, an area that had been repeatedly plundered by “hueveros,” or egg thieves.  Part of what he wrote: “60 turtles are lost – there wasn’t even a nest left.  We need help and soon.”  He said the police must come armed and be brave, as this was a serious situation with dangerous people involved.

Jairo’s message was read by at least 135 persons, and was part of his attempt to bring attention to the plight of the largest of living turtles, whose eggs are constantly under threat from local people who loot the nests, then sell the eggs to drug traffickers.

Shortly after his Facebook post, Jairo wrote in La Nacion that delinquents were “stamping out” the sea turtle, and environmentalists like himself were being harassed by a “mafia” of hueveros.  As an employee of the state-run animal rescue organization, Paradero Eco-Tour, as well as the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network, Jairo was well known to be passionate about his conservation work.  He and a network of volunteers patrolled the beaches, and reported suspicious activity to the authorities.  Unfortunately, his personal visibility may have made him a prime target of the unscrupulous hueveros.

On Friday, May 31st, as he was coming back from a night-long patrol on a turtle nesting beach near Limon, Jairo was abducted by “unknown assailants,” beaten, robbed, and murdered.  He was found bound, naked, and shot in the head.  Four volunteer colleagues, all female and foreign-born, had been shoved into a car as they were on patrol.  They later gave evidence to the police.

This was not the first crime against humans who are trying to save the turtles in Costa Rica.  Last year, a gang of men with AK-47s burst into a turtle nursery on the same beach, bound and gagged the volunteers who were tending to the young leatherbacks, and stole 1,520 eggs from the 19 protected nests.

Human predation on turtle eggs is nothing new, but poaching has greatly increased in recent years. It is especially prevalent near the Caribbean city of Limon. Costa Rica officially outlawed it in 1966, and the Marine Turtle Population Law of 2002 creates a three-year prison sentence for anyone who “kills, hunts, captures, decapitates, or disturbs marine turtles.”  However, the authorities seem to speak out of both sides of their mouth on this issue, for the Costa Rican government officially sanctions the “harvesting” of sea turtle eggs –  cruelly, right in front of the mothers who have just laid them in the sand.  This is allowed allegedly as part of an economic program for poor natives.  But does the bereft mother know or care about the difference?  Whether it is government-sponsored theft or theft by criminal gangs, her babies are lost forever, and the turtle population is declining precipitously.

The government says they are “managing” the harvesting of eggs with an eye to conservation, but whether this is true or not, the fact is that on the Caribbean coast the eggs are now a kind of currency and are routinely exchanged for drugs.  Part of the blame for this goes to Southeast Asia, where people consider leatherback eggs a delicacy worth paying for.

There is no doubt about the suffering and potential extinction of the leatherbacks caused by this wanton trafficking.  Additionally, ecologists warn that their decimation is resulting in an inevitable increase in the population of stinging jellyfish, whose numbers the leatherbacks used to keep in check.  At 6 feet long and up to 900 lbs., the turtles are an essential part of the eco-system.

Costa Rican President, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, expressed her shock at the murder of Jairo Mora Sandoval, and called on all authorities to work together to solve this “abominable murder.”  However, the Chief of Police in Limon stated that the number of officers assigned to protecting turtle nests and environmentalists was insufficient.

Certainly, without such noble souls as Jairo, this world is a sadder place indeed.

Fare Thee Well, Jairo, Protector of the Ancient Mariner.

Please demand that the police of Costa Rica protect the sea turtles and their protectors. We applaud Costa Rica and President Chinchilla-Miranda for abolishing sport hunting, and urge the protection of the beloved sea turtles.

Embassy of Costa Rica in the U. S., 2114 S Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20008
202-234-2945, 202-234-2946, 202-234-8653

Muni Figueres

Minister Counselor for Environmental and Cultural Affairs

Anna María Oduber


Contact Us

Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting / C.A.S.H.
P.O. Box 562
New Paltz, NY 12561