Verdicts in turtle conservationist’s murder a rare rebuke of crimes against environmentalists

baby leatherback sea turtle on beach

Jairo Mora Sandoval, a sea turtle activist who had spoken out against poaching of sea turtle eggs on the Costa Rican beaches where he worked, was murdered in 2013. With the conviction of four men in the recent trial, Costa Rican authorities are sending a message that they won’t let such actions go unpunished. (© Jolene Bertoldi/Flickr Creative Commons)

A recent rash of murders of environmental activists in Latin America has underscored the dangers of speaking up for the ecosystems and species that cannot — and the courage of those who do so anyway.

These crimes often go unsolved — making the recent conviction of four men suspected in the murder of Costa Rican sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval a rare and hopeful sign.

In May 2013, Mora was found dead on a beach on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast after he and four foreign volunteers were abducted by a group of masked men while patrolling for leatherbacks.

In a subsequent blog post, Conservation International’s Sebastian Troëng put Mora’s death in context: “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,” he wrote.

A Costa Rican judge echoed this view. “The killing of Mr. Jairo Mora Sandoval was the straw that broke the camel’s back in this war that was taking place between poachers and environmentalists on the beach,” chief judge Carlos Álvarez was quoted as saying in March.

The four convicted men were each sentenced to between 74 and 90 years in prison for Mora’s murder and related crimes. Three others were acquitted for lack of evidence.


Jairo Mora Sandoval died protecting sea turtles. Donate to honor his legacy by supporting critical conservation efforts.

“I am glad [Mora’s] murderers were convicted, but sad it occurred and that we could not prevent it,” said Marco Quesada, country director of Conservation International’s Costa Rica office, in response to the news. “Conflicts in sea turtle nesting beaches are not new. In this case, the killers were not seeking sea turtle eggs for subsistence, but were a band of organized criminals involved in other issues including drugs. Increasingly around the world, environmental crime has become intertwined with other conflicts.

“Although the conviction does not solve increased conflicts over natural resources, it does send a signal that such crimes will not be ignored by Costa Rican authorities,” he continued.

Costa Rica decided years ago to base its economic development on nature, Quesada said. “But conservation is a long road, and new challenges constantly arise. We look forward to carrying Jairo’s legacy to future generations.”

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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  1. jand says

    Kudos to Costa Rica and its judge in convicting the criminals, and most of all, sending a loud message to others that they are serious about protecting out fragile environment.

    May more of these despicable men be locked away for decades–or we could devise a better solution if we were as bloodthirsty as the criminals. Men who pray on weaker creatures do not deserve to be called men–just bullies.

    Jand W

    1. MARE REASONS says

      I agree with you to the fullest, what the hell is wrong with people, do you know where I can go volunteer to help these creatures?

      1. Shawn Yap says

        Hi there, I’m a singaporean. Had always wanted to help on turtles especially turtles if my own country. So far I’ve asked relevant department to help on my local species, to be able to breed them legally but to no avail. I’ve a true n sincere heart towards this direction but I’m not well written or spoken. Had actually gotten a farm in the hope to do more but sadly my country’s law doesn’t allow me to do so.
        I had gather data from local fisherman n myself on field trips, had learnt that most of freshwater turtles numbers had drop dramatically. Out of the 6 species I’ve know to exist here, only C Ambonensis n T s elegan( introduced) were still seen once awhile. Had only know from locals seeing a couple H grandis. Non on N platynota etc.
        Just hope n wish you guys to give me a direction on how or what I should do in order to carry on the legacy of protecting turtles. Making sure they’ll not extinct n a better future for these forgotten species. People here almost only talk about helping dogs n cats, when I tell someone I’m helping turtles, they looked at me in a way like I’m an alien, someone out of this world. Sadly even my family treats me this way.
        Please, guide me or tell me what I can or should do, I felt so alone here. All I want is to help them, I can talk to them easily but find it so hard to bring my point to people around me.

        1. Mark says

          The only hope for turtle species in that area of the world is to relocate them to a safe place where they are not destroyed by the greedy and ignorant criminals.

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