Conservationist Killed in Costa Rica, Where Illegal Wildlife + Drug Trades Threaten Security

leatherback sea turtle in Trinidad

A leatherback turtle camouflages her nest on Trinidad’s Grand Riviere beach. (© Rod Mast)

The direct connections between conservation, security and good governance were brought into stark relief late last week in Costa Rica. Jairo Mora Sandoval, a young aspiring sea turtle biologist from Costa Rica, was allegedly abducted by masked men together with four volunteers, three from the U.S. and one from Spain.

The conservationists were on their way to patrol the beach of Moin, Costa Rica at night in search of nesting leatherback turtles, with the purpose of protecting the turtle nests from poachers. The masked men reportedly took the foreign volunteers to an abandoned building. When they eventually managed to escape and inform the authorities, it was too late for Jairo. He was found, shot in the head, lying on the beach close to where he was abducted.

Less than a month earlier, in a conversation with a reporter from the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion, Jairo had denounced sea turtle egg poaching by people involved in drugs and organized crime. Jairo’s colleagues and friends are convinced he was murdered in retaliation for shining a light on the shady trade in sea turtle eggs and its close connection with other illegal activities.

sea turtle eggs in Malaysia

Sea turtle eggs in Malaysia. In Costa Rica, the eggs are stolen by poachers and sold as bar snacks (and a supposed aphrodisiac). (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)

For me, the fate of Jairo — a young man committed to conservation and passionate about selflessly protecting his country’s natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations — has struck a deep, personal chord.

Before I joined CI and moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 2006, I spent nine years working for the Sea Turtle Conservancy on the same Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. I spent countless nights walking along black sand beaches in the dark, looking for endangered leatherback, green and hawksbill turtles.

These beaches are known for their importance to leatherbacks in particular. I flew over Moin Beach four times in 2001-2003 in a small Cessna airplane to count leatherback turtle tracks from above; we found more tracks than we had expected.

We compared the proportion of tracks found on the beach with surveys conducted in the 1980s, and concluded leatherback nesting had shifted from northern Costa Rican beaches toward Moin Beach. The importance of the beach for leatherback nesting, as documented during the aerial surveys, was used by the Costa Rican authorities to evaluate environmental impact statements for proposed developments.

Unfortunately, the concentration of nesting turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica also attracts poachers. I remember the night I spent on a remote section of beach in Tortuguero National Park in a cat-and-mouse game, liberating green turtles that had been turned over onto their backs by poachers, who planned to collect them in the morning and take them to the nearby slaughterhouse in the provincial capital of Limon.

Another time I was conducting an early morning track survey, and a boatload of poachers wanted me to get into their boat. I declined and continued along the beach, but a couple of days later a track surveyor from the local village was forced onto the boat and intimidated to make sure he did not tell park rangers about the poachers.

I can’t count the number of times I alerted park rangers to the presence of poachers. The rangers would fire warning shots in the air that sent the poachers running back to their boats. Sometimes the poachers would fire back.

Sebastian Troeng with leatherback turtle

Sebastian Troeng with leatherback turtle on a beach in Caribbean Central America. (© CI/photo by Sebastian Troeng)

During my nine years in Costa Rica, I visited pretty much every coastal community along its Caribbean coast, and I count friends in many of these villages. My wife and I are godparents to a young boy from Limon. To my knowledge I never met Jairo, though it’s possible we briefly crossed paths during my visits to Gandoca where Jairo grew up and where he learned about sea turtle conservation at a project I have visited several times.

However, I know Jairo’s colleagues at WIDECAST, the organization running the sea turtle project at Moin,, and I collaborated with one of them to describe and quantify the leatherback nesting along the entire coast in 2004, including Moin Beach. I can only imagine his pain and the pain of Jairo’s family and friends. After Jairo’s death, my friend has been forced to close down the Moin Beach sea turtle project to avoid putting volunteers and staff at risk. This is probably exactly what the poachers and drug runners wish to see.

The links between the drug trade and sea turtle poaching along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica have been well known for a long time. Locals talk of intimidation of or collusion by police and judicial officials to minimize action against poachers and drug runners. When meeting with officials from the environment ministry in Limon, I used to go by boat along the canal just behind Moin Beach. Remote enough to provide a safe haven from the authorities, it was known to be a rough place, where impunity is the order of the day.

It is disconcerting that this situation exists even in a country as conservation-minded as Costa Rica. The country takes great pride in its natural beauty, its commitment to conservation and the sustainable development of its economy — and rightly so. It has an impressive protected area system encompassing stunning natural areas; it was also one of the first countries to pioneer payment for ecosystem services to conserve forests and maintain freshwater resources.

Nesting sea turtles are the engine of a multimillion-dollar tourism industry in Costa Rica, generating jobs, economic development and opportunities for its people. The turtles attract tens of thousands of tourists to the country every year — tourists who spend money on lodging, souvenirs and tour guide fees.

Costa Rica is a country known for its good governance and for the rule of law. There can be no impunity for the murder of Jairo Mora Sandoval, one of Costa Rica’s young and bright conservationists. The Costa Rican authorities must take concerted action to bring those responsible to justice, and to protect the sea turtles and the critical natural capital the country and its people depend on for economic development and well-being.

The province of Limon and its people deserve a healthy coast, with good governance, security and sustainable economic development. They deserve that Jairo’s sacrifice not only be remembered but also acted upon — swiftly and determinedly — by the Costa Rican authorities.

Sebastian Troëng is the managing director of CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.

Comments

      1. Sebastian Troeng says

        Absolutely, drones are now used for a variety of conservation purposes and may be useful in this case too although of course it would require the ability to use them at night. This site provides some useful information about such options: http://conservationdrones.org

  1. David Godfrey says

    Well said my old friend. Those of us working tirelessly to monitor and protect nesting beaches along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast are in shock today — mourning the loss of our colleague, worried about the safety of our own project staff and volunteers, and urging Costa Rican authorities to respond swiftly.

    1. Sebastian Troeng says

      David, keep up the great work of Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and Panama and its people are greatly benefiting from nesting sea turtles and the dedicated efforts of STC! This tragedy must catalyze action from the Costa Rican authorities and from anybody who can make a difference.

  2. Verwaerde Jens says

    I live in a country where seaturtles never come (Belgium), but I’m sadened by the way money and absence of respect for nature and human beings have led to the murder of this colleague-biologist. The seas are becoming more and more a last resort for gathering en mining whatever seems to be profitable. I strongly support CI and other international organisations that try to defend nature, sea and land.
    Jairo’s death makes all the clearer that nature conservation and human friendship are more than ever necessary.
    I urge the Costa Rican government to take action and to protect what makes Costa Rica, Costa Rica; it’s not murder nor the destruction of nature, but it’s Costa Rican people and Costa Rican nature.

    1. Sebastian Troeng says

      Costa Rica and its people are fantastic, I am hopeful the political leaders will demonstrate leadership and respond forcefully to this terrible event.

  3. Florence Turner says

    This is very sad and worrisome as I am looking into volunteering with my 11 year old son on the pacific side into the Corcovado area. If the government doesn’t act fast, they will loose lots of volunteers like me. I love Costa Rica that I have visited twice and wanted to return to teach my son about conservation. I will have to monitor from now on….

  4. Rebeca Chaverri says

    Great article Sebastian. I feel the same way, I dont think I ever met Jairo, but his death has broken my heart: for his family and friends, for my country, for the beautiful yet abandoned Limon, and of course for the turtles we love. The circumstances surrounding his death are the worst nightmare for any field turtle biologist. I always knew there was a big risk being on the beach, unarmed, in total darkness with just a bunch of keen volunteers, but I never thought these criminals would go that far. What’s going to happen now? What needs to happen for things to change?

  5. Kat Raines says

    I volunteered doing turtle research in Costa Rica in 2008. The problem with poaching and drug trade was evident then – we had to go out on patrols with armed guards. I’m turtle conservation in other parts of the world – still encountering problems conflicting interests.
    This is a petition to the Costa Rican Goverment as a plea for this case to be taken seriously to prevent anything like this happening again. It literally takes 2 minutes.

    http://www.change.org/petitions/laura-chinchilla-president-of-costa-rica-protect-sea-turtle-conservation-workers-from-murderous-poachers

  6. Melinda Stockmann says

    Sebastian!

    So good to reconnect with you through you continuing to advocate for sea turtle conservation… but so sad at the loss of human life now in addition to sea turtle life. I found out about the murder of Jairo through Freddy, and it has struck me deeply as well, having spent 5 months in Tortuguero working for the CCC thirteen years ago. At that time, I came to understand firsthand that there were serious problems with poachers taking sea turtle eggs as well as killing whole turtles for their meat. I had also heard, fortunately NOT through firsthand experience, that there was a good deal of drug running through the area. Never would I imagine, however, that the poachers would go to that extent to kill an innocent young person in cold blood. I befriended many local Costa Ricans during my time in Tortuguero. I formed a particularly special bond with 3 teenagers. They would join me in my patrols of the beach. I have lost touch with them over the years, but they would be about Jairo’s age, and I hope that they are doing great things for themselves, their families, sea turtles, the natural world, and Costa Rica.

    If there is one good thing that can come from this tragedy, I hope it is increased awareness of the dangers of poaching and increased efforts to confront and put an end to it.

    Thank you for providing your personal story and some background context that I hope will pull a broader group of people in to support this critical challenge.

    Thank you again and I hope you and your family are doing well.

    Sincerely, Melinda

    1. Sebastian Troeng says

      Melinda, great to hear from you and that you still have Tortuguero and the people of Limon in your thoughts. I think it is important that people continue to engage in sea turtle conservation along the coast. The more eyes there are out there, the more difficult for poachers to get away with stealing the turtle nests. Hopefully the Costa Rican authorities will make sure there is adequate for all conservation workers in the country.

  7. Patricia Ordonez says

    My deepest condolences to the family and friends of this courageous young man. The story breaks my heart. I pray that his death will serve the purpose of strengthening the noble cause for which he lost his life.

  8. Sebastian Troeng says

    Rebeca, thank you for your thoughts. I believe this is a wake up call and I hope there will be a response to really deal with the issues of poaching, other illegal activities and the challenges of sustainable economic development for the people of Limon.

  9. Graciela Tiburcio says

    Porque sabemos a que horas vamos a salir a patrullar, pero no sabemos si vamos a regresar. De algún modo todos somos Jairo Mora. Luchemos por nuestro derecho a conservar !!!!

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  12. Mandy DeVine says

    You can also help by signing a petition asking the Costa Rican government to respond to his murder by committing police protection to the beaches where there have been threats and significant poaching levels to make these areas safe for sea turtles, conservationists and ecotourists. To ensure transparency and reassure the tourist community, the federal government should take over the investigation and ensure Jairo’s killers are swiftly brought to justice.

    https://www.change.org/petitions/justice-for-jairo-who-was-murdered-by-poachers-for-protecting-sea-turtles?utm_source=action_alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=26342&alert_id=iyKhUFZiEM_GrRiOgNZob

  13. David Smith says

    A moving and response to a senseless tragedy. Thank you for your eloquent words, Sebastian. As you know, we at CAVU are continuing our monitoring flights along this coast with both STC and WIDECAST, most recently just a few weeks ago. These flights will continue, the monitoring will continue, the loss of this vibrant young man will only draw more attention to the important work he dedicated his life to.

    1. Sebastian Troeng says

      Thanks David, CAVU’s work is essential to highlight the increasing relative importance of Moin for leatherback nesting and it is great that you continue to provide overflights and awesome films about conservation!

  14. Leonardo Saenz says

    Terrible news.
    My deepest condolences to his family. Thanks Sebastian for honoring his memory.
    Best, Leo

  15. Lynn Garnier says

    Nosotros, Costa Rica, estamos todalmente impactados, ante la muerte de Jairo, sumamente tristes, es algo que nos ha tocado el corazon a la mayoria del pueblo de nuestro pais,
    Es increible que la vida de Jairo se haya perdido haciendo un trabajo para bien de todos, y en manos de narcotraficantes, esto no puede quedar impune, queremos justicia, y que Jairo no sea olvidado nunca,
    A jairo gracias, por cada tortuga que salvo, y por dar la vida por ellas,

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  19. Arturo Herrera says

    Hola.

    This is Arturo Herrera. I met you in 2004. I believe that you also crossed paths with Jairo in 2004 in Gandoca when we were fitting Leatherbacks with satellite tracking equipment. We were all on the beach watching and I was ensuring the local students were being observant but having this wonderful education opportunity.

    Here is the link:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/arturoherrera1102/4269826446/in/set-72157623197227154

    He is the one in the green shirt behind you

  20. Limon Costa Rica says

    The sadness news during year 2013, Jairo was a person who fills with pride to the province of Limon, Costa Rica. A place with many social problems, but with a great desire to help the environment. Thanks Conservation International for helping our country.

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