The following is the established format for referencing this article:Pheasey, H., R. A. Griffiths, E. Matechou, and D. L. Roberts. 2023. Motivations and sensitivities surrounding the illegal trade of sea turtles in Costa Rica. Ecology and Society 28(4):15.
Illegal wildlife trade can threaten biodiversity and economic development. Criminal enterprises may add wildlife products to their list of illicit goods by using established trade routes, networks, and individuals. On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, killing of sea turtles and removal of their eggs is commonplace. However, beyond conservation NGOs reporting evidence of illegal take, little is known about this activity. Through semi-structured interviews with law enforcement, community members, NGOs, and illegal harvesters, alongside anecdotal information and observations, we aimed to understand the motivations for illegal take. To cross-reference these findings, we assessed sensitivities surrounding illegal harvesting by asking the general public sensitive questions using the randomized response technique; a method used to elicit sensitive information whilst insuring the anonymity of respondents. We included a questionnaire to establish if differences in demographics affected the probability respondents would admit to a turtle-related crime. Our findings identified a rare example of illegal extraction of a wildlife product driven by motivations that were not exclusively livelihood based. We found the majority of illegal take was undertaken by relatively few individuals, dependent on narcotics. The most cited reason for illegal take was that turtle eggs could be used to procure drugs. Law enforcement was under resourced, and informants reported that prosecutions were rare. Local people preferred to purchase rather than harvest eggs suggesting the trade is supply-driven. Those interviewed did not generally regard the subject of illegal harvest as sensitive. Low education levels, high unemployment rates, and marginalization of certain groups may increase susceptibility to narcotics. Although substance misuse and addiction appear to drive illegal trade, associated poverty and marginalization may explain why drug dependency is so prevalent in Caribbean Costa Rica. Increased work opportunities and drug rehabilitation programs may assist in reducing illegal take of turtle eggs on nesting beaches.
The link between poverty and environmental degradation is increasingly recognized by conservationists (Anagnostou et al. 2021). When people are deprived of basic livelihood needs, such as protein, clean water, medicine, or timber, they turn to the local environment to fulfil these requirements. Some of the world’s poorest countries are the richest in biodiversity, creating a conflict between meeting human livelihood requirements and species conservation (Rosser and Mainka 2002, Kaimowitz and Sheil 2007, Leberatto 2016). In much of the world, rural communities rely on access to natural resources to fulfil their livelihood requirements. People cannot uphold sustainable livelihoods when food insecurity and poverty drive them to assume practices that degrade the natural resources upon which they depend (Malmberg Calvo et al. 2001, Hope 2002, Roe et al. 2002, Broad et al. 2003). This creates a downward spiral of poverty, as the degraded environment is no longer able to satisfy basic requirements, thus exacerbating impoverishment and further degrading the environment (Scherr 2000). This issue is at the forefront of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes a countries’ sovereign right to utilize its natural resources (United Nations 1992). It acknowledges that without access rights, people will not value nature, which will lead to its subsequent destruction (Robinson and Redford 1991, United Nations 2015). However, preventing access is a long-established protectionist strategy and can range from prohibiting access to a protected area, to banning the extraction or trade in a wildlife commodity. Additionally, countries with high levels of poverty often lack the capacity to carry out effective enforcement, leading to rule breaking through desperation, rebellion, or direct conflicts (Anagnostou et al. 2021).
Costa Rica is a biodiversity hotspot and considered a leading example of environmental conservation (Almeyda Zambrano et al. 2010). The country is home to an estimated 5.4% of the world’s biodiversity and over a quarter of its territory is protected (Kohlmann et al. 2007). Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula is the largest protected area in Central America, spanning ~425 km² (Almeyda Zambrano et al. 2010). Costa Rica derives nearly a quarter of its revenue from tourism, much of which is ecotourism (Braun et al. 2015) and many visitors are drawn to its globally important sea turtle nesting beach: Tortuguero in Limón Province (Troëng and Rankin 2005). However, behind the tourism veneer, Costa Rica contains pockets of poverty in the form of social deprivation, low education and employment levels, high rates of teenage pregnancy, and substance misuse among young people (Fonseca-Chaves and Bejarano-Orozco 2012, Villegas 2014). In Limón province on the Caribbean coast these issues are particularly prevalent. The life expectancy of men in Limón is 76.1 years; significantly lower than that of other provinces in the country, and partly explained by violent crime (Romain and Barboza Solis 2020). Illicit drugs and violent crime go hand in hand and Costa Rica is a major trafficking route for narcotics, namely cocaine and marijuana. In 2020, over five tons of cocaine were seized in Puerto Limón docks, the largest seizure in Costa Rican history (BBC News 2020). Our study identified links between narcotics trade and the illegal extraction of sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.
Globally, sea turtles are utilized for their meat, shell, penis, calipee, oils, and eggs. In some countries, turtle eggs are considered a delicacy or aphrodisiac and in other places a protein source (Thorbjarnarson et al. 2000). Despite international and domestic laws designed to protect sea turtles, killing for meat and illegal removal of eggs remains a problem across Latin America (Campbell 2003). Sea turtles are slow to mature and reproduce, so removing eggs could affect recruitment that may not be visible in the population for many years (Seminoff 2004). In Costa Rica, sea turtles are protected under Costa Rican law #8325 and a more general wildlife law #7317. In the Caribbean, taking turtles for meat, eggs, and shell is widespread and beaches rely on conservation programs to protect nesting females and eggs. The longest running of these programs include the Sea Turtle Conservancy (Tortuguero), Caño Palma Biological Station (Playa Norte), and Latin American Sea Turtles (Pacuare). Recent analysis of the illegal harvesting rates from these projects found that illegal take at each of these sites is declining because of conservation efforts. Despite this, these beaches continue to lose adult turtles and nests to illegal harvesters every season, and this population of green (Chelonia mydas) turtles is in decline (Pheasey et al. 2021, Restrepo et al. 2023).
Conservation efforts require behavioral change away from destructive behaviors. In turn, this requires a better understanding of these behaviors, motivations for wrongdoing, and the socioeconomic drivers of illegal trade (Mancini and Koch 2009, Nuno et al. 2013). Here our aims are twofold: (1) to analyze the motivations for illegally harvesting turtles and their eggs, (2) to cross-reference our findings by examining the sensitivity of sea turtle consumption amongst the Costa Rican population.
The School of Anthropology and Conservation’s Research Ethics Advisory Group (University of Kent) approved this research (Ref. No.: 0381617a). All participants were over the age of 18, were made aware of the purpose of the research, and provided signed consent.
We conducted our research in Limón Province on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, between May 2017 and November 2018. The inhabitants of the region have traditionally consumed green sea turtles and their eggs; Puerto Limón possessed a flourishing green turtle fishery with numerous abattoirs up until the 1960s (Campbell 2007). Costa Rica is also a narcotic trafficking route, used as a refueling stop by smugglers moving drugs between Colombia and Panama to Mexico and the U.S. (Vice News 2015). Data collection took place in villages near three nesting beaches: Tortuguero, Playa Norte (village: San Francisco), and Pacuare, and nearby towns Cariari, Guapiles, Siquirres, and Batán (Fig. 1). Tortuguero is considered the most important nesting beach for green sea turtles in the western hemisphere and each year draws thousands of tourists to view nesting turtles. By contrast, adjacent Playa Norte has under 300 nests per season, and at night the beach is only open to those holding research permits to monitor the turtles. Farthest south, Pacuare is a beach outside of the Reserva Pacuare protected area, and here illegal harvesting is widespread and largely undertaken openly (see Appendix 1 for further information on the sites). To analyze the motivations for illegal take, we used a mixed methods approach. We used semi-structured interviews with key informants (n = 38), alongside anecdotal information we gained from impromptu conversations with people aware of the purpose of our study (n = 20). Pertinent observations (such as witnessing the illegal extraction of eggs or conversations with drug dealers (n = 9)) were also included. To cross-reference our findings and better understand the sensitivity of the subject, we used the randomized response technique (RRT) to ask sensitive questions (Solomon et al. 2007, Nuno and St. John 2015). These questions asked the general public (n = 452) about their behaviors relating to buying or selling turtle eggs, illegal harvesting, and bribery. We then asked the same people (n = 452) the questions directly (DQ). This allowed us to compare the two methods, hypothesizing that more people would answer honestly using RRT. We collected demographic data in the form of a short questionnaire. We summed the responses for each test to compare answer frequencies and analyzed the RRT and DQ data to estimate the frequency of rule breaking, while also performing non-parametric bootstrapping to obtain interquartile ranges that quantified uncertainty around these estimates. We also employed logistic regression models and performed variable selection using AIC to identify demographic characteristics that are important predictors for the probability of illegal activity (see Appendix 1 for full methodology).
Our participants openly discussed illegal harvesting. In particular they spoke about demand, harvester demographics, the trade chain, and law enforcement:
Demand for sea turtles
Demand for sea turtle eggs and meat is high and driven by culture. We discussed who eats turtle products and why, and 29 (76%) participants were able to answer these questions. Of these, 17 (44%) respondents explicitly stated that Costa Rica has a long-established tradition of eating turtle products (Table 1, reference 1; hereafter Table 1.1). This suggests demand was high because people have enjoyed turtle products for many generations. Participants reported that in San José, there was a shift away from consumption of turtle eggs by the younger generation, though many people still claim that eating turtle eggs “es mi cultura” (“it’s my culture”).
Illegal harvester demographics
Consumers of turtle products rarely harvest turtles themselves. Based on 30 formal and six informal interviews we found illegal harvesters could be grouped into four broad categories. The first group were subsistence harvesters or those who take turtles or eggs for cultural reasons. Although using sea turtles and their eggs for subsistence has largely ceased, traditional consumption remains. Local conservation projects reported it was typical to see an increase in extraction around national holidays. In Pacuare, two participants, a current and a former harvester, discussed competing with drug addicts for nests (Table 1.2).
The second group are petty criminals and illegal drug users. This was the most cited group. Drug dependency was frequently cited as driving illegal take: 34 participants (89%) of 38 key informants, plus two informal interviewees cited drugs (Table 1.3). Among these 36 respondents, 23 (63%) referred to harvesters as drug addicts, 20 (55%) referred to crack cocaine, and 12 (33%) mentioned marijuana use as a driver of illegal take. Alcohol users were mentioned by four interviewees. NGOs reported that they suspected illegal take increased at the weekend, which suggests recreational drug use as well as drug dependency is a motivator. Eggs or meat are sold locally, as quickly as possible, to finance drug purchases. In Pacuare, eggs were exchanged for drugs or alcohol. In Tortuguero, illegal harvesters were often homeless young men. At other beaches, seasonal migrants were given refuge in local homes. Others were locals, permanently based in the area.
The majority of the Pacuare beach population are in some way marginalized from society. Some have mental health issues, a high proportion are homosexuals who have been ejected from their communities, and many have criminal records having spent time in prison. For these reasons, many illegal harvesters are unemployed and move to the beaches along the coast where they can survive by accessing natural resources, including turtles. In Pacuare and San Francisco, petty crime is perceived to increase as criminals move in for the turtle season, while in Tortuguero crime is perceived to decrease, as criminals switch from petty theft to extracting turtle eggs (Table 1.4). Outside the turtle season they either leave or apparently shift their behavior to committing local robberies.
Historically, alcohol (liquor)-driven illegal harvesting was prevalent in Tortuguero. Today, in large part because of ecotourism, far fewer people engage, but those who do are motivated by crack cocaine dependency. A Tortuguero policeman cited at least 10–12 known individuals and stated San Francisco residents are known to illegally harvest on Tortuguero beach. Sales occur inside Tortuguero or in neighboring communities, such as San Francisco and properties along Playa Norte (Table 1.5).
The third group were chieftains, older men no longer able to walk the beach but who extort young boys to steal eggs for them. In Pacuare, we identified two cases where it was clear these boys received drugs for their efforts. A similar example was seen in Playa Norte where a known crack user would take his son to take nests. His child was too young to be arrested and could therefore carry the eggs (Pheasey, personal observation, Playa Norte 2014).
The fourth group was reportedly part of organized crime syndicates. They were rarely present on beaches but would harpoon turtles at sea. In 2016, a boat reportedly containing 16 turtles was visible from Playa Norte actively harpooning turtles in daylight. Some San Francisco residents, known to take nesting turtles, may also harpoon them at sea. On five occasions, it was reported that harpooners’ primary activity was running quantities of cocaine from Colombia, or marijuana from Jamaica to the U.S. (reports from Coastguards [n = 3] and NGOs [n = 2]). They have boats and criminal networks in place, so turtles may be a convenient source of income when returning with an empty boat. Interviewees speculated they would take the meat to Puerta Limon where it could be bought under the counter by asking for pollo de mar (chicken of the sea). This group would occasionally land on beaches to take nesting turtles and eggs.
The trade chain in eggs and meat is short. In Tortuguero and Playa Norte illegal harvesters predominantly sell to consumers door-to-door (Table 1.6 & 1.7). Taking turtles for meat is opportunistic, and unsold meat is discarded, alongside undesirable flippers. In Pacuare, if the harvesters do not eat the meat themselves, they sell it in Batán. Here they kill turtles to order and have a network of households that purchase the meat (Table 1.8). Black market prices fluctuate, with green turtle meat retailing at ₡2–3000 (US$4–6) a kilo or ₡150,000 (US$300) a whole turtle. Prices of eggs varied between beaches. In Pacuare, 12 eggs would sell for ₡2000 ($4) or directly exchanged for 1–2 rocks of crack cocaine or marijuana cigarettes (Table 1.9). Similar prices were reported in San Francisco, but in Tortuguero harvesters sell half or whole nests (~60–120 eggs) for ₡2000. In towns, turtle eggs are cooked and three eggs retail at ₡1000 ($2).
It is illegal to “possess, transport or sell” (Law enforcement interviewee) unregulated turtle eggs or meat in Costa Rica, with a sentence of up to three years in prison for repeat offenders. However, this was easily avoided. Police presence is low in the area. Tortuguero is the only site with a police station and Pacuare has an understaffed Coast Guard station at the southern end of the beach (Table 1.10). Suspects must be in possession of eggs when apprehended. This is easy to circumvent on a beach where patrols are infrequent, and police use bright lights (Table 1.11). One participant claimed that if he sees the coastguard coming, he simply abandons the eggs and escapes into the jungle. In addition, interviewees cited prison overcrowding as why prosecutions were low (Table 1.12). With these challenges, in combination with a lack of resources, there is little incentive to make arrests (Table 1.13). This low level of law enforcement may explain why we found no evidence of bribery. When asked, respondents typically stated that illegal harvesters have nothing to bribe officials with and it was unnecessary as they knew they would likely go unpunished (Table 1.14). At sea it is impossible to ambush traffickers. If challenged, harpooners simply discard any evidence overboard.
Sensitivity surrounding sea turtle related crime
We experienced a 96.8% participation rate in our sensitive questions survey. Refusals, 4.2% (n = 19), were because of participants not wishing to partake in any survey, rather than a survey specifically regarding turtles. Despite our efforts to account for low literacy levels, four participants failed to complete the direct questions appropriately. Rejecting incomplete answers resulted in a different sample size for each question (trade = 452 [100.0%], poach = 448 [99.1%], and bribery = 451 [99.8%]).
We found no significant difference between RRT and DQ when comparing the interquartile ranges for each question (Fig. 2), suggesting the questions are not considered sensitive. Therefore, DQs were used to estimate law breaking frequency. No DQ interquartile ranges overlapped with zero, suggesting there was little to no admission to law breaking. However, a significantly higher number of people admitted to buying/selling eggs they believed were illegal, whereas only 1.6% (n = 7) admitted to illegal extraction and 0.9% (n = 4) admitted bribery.
We found the education level of respondents to be low; 83.4% had only secondary school education. Incomes were also low; 75.3% earned no more than a low but steady income (< US$1700/year (salaryexplorer.com 2023) with cash-in-hand employment, of which 33.9% were in the low-earner bracket, earning for example, $1.5/hour for banana plantation work or vending street food. The average household size was 3.4 persons. Two thirds, (68.1%) believed that over half of their neighbors had substance dependency issues. The pairwise matrix identified possible correlations between our response with the demographic covariates: participant’s home location (north or south), gender, income group, education, and church going activities. The model with lowest AIC score retained location and earnings (main effects model AIC = 250.61, final model AIC = 243.92), finding that people from the south of the country are more likely to admit to a turtle related crime (p < 0.1; Table A2 in Appendix 1). This indicates a possible geographical divide in sensitivity of the subject or effectiveness of law enforcement. Additionally, the effect of earnings showed that the middle to high earners were significantly less likely to admit to a turtle related crime than participants with no earnings (p < 0.01), but the effect on this probability of other earning brackets was not significantly different to that of no earning.
Our study identified a likely underreported example where illegal harvesters were not attempting to fulfil traditional subsistence needs such as protein, replaced instead by narcotics, namely crack cocaine and marijuana, or liquor. South of Puerta Limón, in Cahuita, turtle eggs have been identified as a source of easy money, but no previous connection has been made with drugs (Hart et al. 2013). This is the first time a link between narcotics and illegal take of turtles has been reported from this region, however it is probably not unusual. Narcotics satisfy a basic and urgent need for addicts and often the way to fund this is through illegal means, and, if available, sellable wildlife would serve this purpose. Furthermore, members of the public showed no objection to admitting to purchasing eggs, and there was no significant difference identified between the sensitive (RRT) and non-sensitive (DQ) methods in terms of the responses, which suggests that the consumption of illegal sea turtle eggs is not deemed a sensitive subject by the local population. The narrower interquartile ranges for the DQs are due to fewer participants responding “yes” than were forced to use the RRT. This suggests these respondents were less likely to respond truthfully if they had broken a law. This may be due to variation in the sample, with those not involved in a crime being less comfortable responding “yes.” Whereas those who are willing to openly take eggs likely have fewer concerns regarding admitting to this crime. Unsurprisingly, significantly more respondents admitted to buying or selling turtle eggs than illegal take or paying bribes. Corruption is a complex subject that our method only touched upon but was reinforced by our interviews. Our findings identified a weak geographical trend in sensitivity, with more southern respondents admitting to buying or selling potentially illegal eggs than those from the north. The proximity of these southern towns to Puerto Limón, with its long history of sea turtle consumption, may influence this lack of sensitivity to the subject (Hart et al. 2013). Conversely, northern beaches require permits to access the beach at night, and the high number of tourists in Tortuguero may stigmatize trade in the north (Hart et al. 2013). However, the higher population density in Puerto Limón, may simply mean a greater amount of illegal wildlife trade taking place. Finding that high earners are less likely to admit to a crime compared to the other groups, is not surprising as much wildlife extraction is linked to poverty and livelihood strategies (Duffy and St. John 2013). Because turtle eggs are a low value commodity, they would probably hold little appeal to high earners.
We found that the majority of illegal harvesters were men, many of whom were migrants from inland, who moved to turtle beaches for the nesting season. Many harvesters had low literacy levels and were cast out from their communities for homosexuality, criminal records, or mental health issues. These characteristics were coupled with few local employment opportunities, a ready supply of narcotics, and under-resourced law enforcement. It is unsurprising therefore, that the region has such a high rate of drug abuse, and that subsequently turtle eggs and petty crime were used to procure drugs. Although our research identified connections between international drug trafficking and the trade in turtle meat, the connection was tenuous. It appears the drug traffickers would hunt turtles opportunistically as a spare time activity for additional income. It is likely they benefit from existing black-market networks to sell the meat, rather than trading turtles as a primary activity.
Turtle eggs are inexpensive, seasonally available, and generally consumed as street food or bar snacks, meaning the end consumer does not depend on the product. Unless opportunistically encountered, searching for nests requires a high investment in both time and energy. This is likely to be a deterrent to anyone without an ulterior motive and most eggs are consumed as a result of purchases from illegal harvesters. This was found to be the case even in Tortuguero, where the volume of turtles is so great the search effort is likely to be extremely low. A recent study found the majority of consumers of turtle eggs in Tortuguero preferred to buy eggs, rather than illegally harvest themselves (Mejías-Basalobre et al. 2021). This suggests that, although demand is high, the illegal trade is largely supply driven. It also suggests that, if available, consumers would be willing to purchase alternatives to illegal eggs. Costa Rica is in fact, home to a legal trade of sea turtle eggs. Ostional is a beach on the Pacific coast where synchronized mass-nesting events (arribadas) of olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles occur monthly. Since the 1980s the local community has been permitted to collect and sell these turtle eggs nationally (Campbell 1998). This trade is heavily regulated, and eggs are collected under specific conditions during arribadas (Article 3 No 20007 MAG). The community only collects doomed eggs, likely to be destroyed if left on the beach where a high concentration of turtles excavate nests that have previously been laid (Valverde et al. 2012). The eggs are packaged in sealed bags, embossed with the community association logo, and distributed across the country. From 2013 to 2018, 28% of national egg sales occurred in Limón province (the highest number of any province in the country) and were sold by street vendors and fish mongers (Lobo-Glez 2013–2018). However, eggs from Ostional do not reach the Caribbean coast, stopping in towns accessible by road (Pheasey 2020). Ostional eggs retail at low prices in an effort to ensure the value of turtle eggs is kept low and therefore undermines the illegal trade (Campbell 1998). However, it is also likely this makes it unprofitable to take the eggs by boat through the jungle canals to the coastal villages such as Tortuguero and Pacuare (Pheasey 2020). Therefore, despite there being a legal alternative in Costa Rica, door-to-door illegal eggs sales on the Caribbean coast predominate.
Interventions needed for supply-side dynamics differ from those of demand-driven trade. Where the trade is demand driven, counteractions may include changing consumer behavior, offering alternatives or alternatives to a wild sourced product. Supply-side interventions, however, may focus efforts on enforcement, alternative livelihoods, and poverty alleviation strategies that reduce harvester reliance on the species of concern (McNamara et al. 2016). Regarding enforcement as a supply-side intervention, deciding whether to engage in illegal behavior involves an implicit cost-benefit analysis: if benefit outweighs risk, illegal take pays (Mancini et al. 2011). In Costa Rica, the likelihood of arrest and prosecution are both low. Law enforcement officials reported needing double the personnel to be effective. Additionally, one respondent commented that drug addicts would not go to prison for a small amount of a drug deemed for personal consumption (Participant 029). In 2013, because prisons were 137% over-capacity, reforms resulted in lighter or no prison sentences for drug-related minor crime (Woods 2015). The result is fewer people imprisoned for possession of either turtle products or drugs, with benefits of illegal trade now outweighing the risks. Conversely, a heavily enforced law, carrying a prison sentence of six months is Costa Rica Family Law (#5476 codigo de familia), which relates to failure to pay child support and custody (Law Firm Meléndez and Bonilla 2016). A key informant (Participant 036) in Pacuare, discussed how readily these custodial sentences are imposed, and the knock-on effect on offenders. Following marginalization from their community and fewer job prospects, released convicts may become drug addicts. The natural resources and revenue available from turtles at beaches such as Pacuare, offer opportunities to this demographic with otherwise limited options.
Alternative livelihood opportunities exist at all three sites. In Tortuguero and San Francisco, employment opportunities in tourism are available. However, these are usually package tours starting in San Jose, rather than community-based tourism projects. This leads to disenfranchisement and distrust amongst the local people (Koens et al. 2009). Both sites also have environmental education programs aimed at children. At Playa Norte, Cano Palma Biological Station also runs homework clubs to supplement the low level of schooling available in San Francisco. This program aims to increase the exam pass rate and see more children go to secondary school and therefore have greater employment opportunities down the line. In Pacuare, Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) has a scheme where illegal harvesters can become guides, offering better income than banana plantations and a guaranteed wage, not offered by illegal harvesting. However, despite this, the lure of high profits from the sale of drugs appears to be irresistible to many, particularly in San Francisco and Pacuare. Substance misuse and addiction appear to drive illegal extraction and are recognized symptoms of more deep-rooted problems associated with poverty. According to Malmberg Calvo et al. (2001), poverty extends beyond malnutrition and low incomes, to include undernourishment, poor health, and low levels of literacy. However, this links to poverty and marginalization, and communities with low income and education levels are most susceptible. As a result, smoking marijuana may start in the teens, and this is a potential gateway to harder drugs (Golub and Johnson 2001).
Our findings are in stark contrast with the more spectacular cases of international trade in charismatic wildlife products such as rhino horn, ivory, or tigers. These cases can involve high-level organized crime syndicates, multi-level trade chains, and often high degrees of corruption to move wildlife across international borders. The situation we found on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is comparable to much of the population of coastal Latin America and elsewhere. Worldwide, illegal take is extremely common, endangering biodiversity to meet livelihood needs, yet is seldom punished. A 2008 TRAFFIC report compiled expert opinions on the drivers of poaching in Asia and found similar patterns to our study. The majority of harvesters were motivated by a need for a cash income and were a mobile dynamic group, mostly men, that moved according to the availability of their target species. Additionally, the harvesters discussed in this report worked independently in 90% of cases. Although cases of wealthy harvesters were identified by these experts, they constituted the minority group (5% of cases; TRAFFIC 2008). Our findings did not identify a wealthy harvester group. The report also found that poverty alleviation strategies were successful in improving livelihoods but did not reduce illegal take as harvesters continued to benefit from the increased income provided by poaching.
Our case study highlights the complexities of illicit wildlife trade and identified issues that extend beyond law enforcement. Even with greater resources, it is unlikely law enforcement will be enough to reduce illegal take. A lack of motivation and understanding of the species, coupled with reactive rather than pro-active policing, does little to inhibit wildlife crime (Pires and Moreto 2011). Wildlife trade is too socially, culturally, and economically complex to be tackled through law enforcement alone; the real need is to address the socioeconomic causes of extraction and trade (Velázquez Gomar and Stringer 2011). Our research is a first step to identifying these drivers in the case of turtle trade in Costa Rica. Removing the key driver, in this case drugs, is unlikely to impact demand for turtle eggs but it could affect supply. Turtle eggs are of low economic value and seasonally available, essentially a treat. With little to no livelihood dependence driving the illegal extraction of eggs/meat, it is unlikely the trade-off would fall in favor of illegal take, for someone who is not motivated by hunger or addiction. Turtle meat is more profitable, but the effort to find a nesting turtle and risks associated with being caught, reduce the incentives. Therefore, the introduction of drug rehabilitation programs and increased work opportunities might reduce the extraction of eggs. Policing against the more organized drug dealers will, however, be more challenging.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE
Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
HP and DR designed the study. HP gathered the data. HP conducted the analyses. EM gave advice on the analyses. HP, DR, and RG drafted the manuscript. All authors contributed to the text. All authors agree to be held accountable for the content therein and approve the final version of the manuscript.
Thank you to COTERC and LAST staff and volunteers for their support of this project, the Spanish speaking field assistants who worked to complete the surveys, and respondents who participated in this study. This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. This source had no other contribution than providing financial support.
The data/code that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, HP. None of the data/code are publicly available because they contain information that could compromise the privacy of research participants. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by The School of Anthropology and Conservation's Research Ethics Advisory Group (University of Kent) Ref. No.: 0381617a.
Almeyda Zambrano, A. M., E. N. Broadbent, and W. H. Durham. 2010. Social and environmental effects of ecotourism in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica: the Lapa Rios case. Journal of Ecotourism 9:62-83. https://doi.org/10.1080/14724040902953076
Anagnostou, M., W. D. Moreto, C. J. Gardner, and D. Brent. 2021. Poverty, pandemics and wildlife crime. Conservation & Society 19:294-306. https://doi.org/10.4103/cs.cs_193_20
BBC News. 2020. Costa Rica makes biggest ever cocaine haul. BBC News, 16 February. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-51520615
Braun, Y. A., M. C. Dreiling, M. P. Eddy, and D. M. Dominguez. 2015. Up against the wall: ecotourism, development, and social justice in Costa Rica. Journal of Global Ethics 11:351-365. https://doi.org/10.1080/17449626.2015.1100653
Broad, S., T. Mulliken, and D. Roe. 2003. The nature and extent of legal and illegal trade in wildlife. Pages 3-22 in S. Oldfield, editor. The trade in wildlife: regulation for conservation. Earthscan, London, UK.
Campbell, L. M. 1998. Use them or lose them? Conservation and the consumptive use of marine turtle eggs at Ostional, Costa Rica. Environmental Conservation 25:305-319. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892998000393
Campbell, L. M. 2003. Contemporary culture, use, and conservation of sea turtles. Pages 307-338 in P. L. Lutz, J. A. Musick, and J. Wyneken, editors. The biology of sea turtles, volume 2. CRC Marine Biology Series. CRC, Boca Raton, Florida, USA.
Campbell, L. M. 2007. Local conservation practice and global discourse, a political ecology of sea turtle conservation. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97:313-334. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8306.2007.00538.x
Duffy, R., and F. A. V. St. John. 2013. Poverty, poaching and trafficking: What are the links? Report commissioned by Evidence on Demand: Climate & Environment Infrastructure, Livelihoods. SOAS, University of London, London, UK. https://doi.org/10.12774/eod_hd059.jun2013.duffy
Fonseca-Chaves, S., and J. Bejarano-Orozco. 2012. Adolescentes costarricenses con problemas judiciales y consumo de Drogas. Revista Costarricense de Psicología 31:21-39.
Golub, A., and B. D. Johnson. 2001. Variation in youthful risks of progression from alcohol and tobacco to marijuana and to hard drugs across generations. American Journal of Public Health 91:225-232. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.91.2.225
Hart, K. A., T. Gray, and S. M. Stead. 2013. Consumptive versus non-consumptive use of sea turtles? Stakeholder perceptions about sustainable use in three communities near Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica. Marine Policy 42:236-244. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2013.03.008
Hope, R. A. 2002. Wildlife harvesting, conservation and poverty: the economics of olive ridley egg exploitation. Environmental Conservation 29:375-384. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892902000255
Kaimowitz, D., and D. Sheil. 2007. Conserving what and for whom? Why conservation should help meet basic human needs in the tropics. Biotropica 39:567-574. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-7429.2007.00332.x
Koens, J. F., C. Dieperink, and M. Miranda. 2009. Ecotourism as a development strategy: experiences from Costa Rica. Environment, Development and Sustainability 11:1225-1237. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-009-9214-3
Kohlmann, B., Á. Solís, O. Elle, X. Soto, and R. Russo. 2007. Biodiversity, conservation, and hotspot atlas of Costa Rica: a dung beetle perspective (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae: Scarabaeinae). Zootaxa 1475:1-34. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.1457.1.1
Law Firm Meléndez and Bonilla. 2016. Costa Rica child support and custody. Law Firm Meléndez & Bonilla, San José, Costa Rica. https://www.costaricadivorce.com/child_support.html
Leberatto, A. C. 2016. Understanding the illegal trade of live wildlife species in Peru. Trends in Organized Crime 19:42-66. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-015-9262-z
Lobo-Glez, H. 2013–2018. Informe anual de logros del Proyecto de aprovechamiento de huevos, control y manejo de hábitat de la población de tortuga marina Lora (Lepidochelys olivacea), que anida en la comunidad de Playa Ostional, años 2013–2018. ADIO, Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional, Costa Rica.
Malmberg Calvo, C., M. Das Gupta, C. N. Grootaert, R. Kanbur, V. Kwakwa, and N. Lustig. 2001. World development report 2000/2001, attacking poverty. World development report. Oxford University Press, New York, New York, USA. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/230351468332946759/World-development-report-2000-2001-attacking-poverty
Mancini, A., and V. Koch. 2009. Sea turtle consumption and black market trade in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Endangered Species Research 7:1-10. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00165
Mancini, A., J. Senko, R. Borquez-Reyes, J. Guzman Póo, J. A. Seminoff, and V. Koch. 2011. To poach or not to poach an endangered species: elucidating the economic and social drivers behind illegal sea turtle hunting in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Human Ecology 39:743-756. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-011-9425-8
McNamara, J., M. Rowcliffe, G. Cowlishaw, J. S. Alexander, Y. Ntiamoa-Baidu, A. Brenya, and E. J. Milner-Gulland. 2016. Characterising wildlife trade market supply-demand dynamics. PLoS ONE 11(9):e0162972. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162972
Mejías-Balsalobre, C., J. Restrepo, G. Borges, R. García, D. Rojas-Cañizales, H. Barrios-Garrido, and R. A. Valverde. 2021. Local community perceptions of sea turtle egg use in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Ocean & Coastal Management 201:105423. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2020.105423
Nuno, A., N. Bunnefeld, L. C. Naiman, and E. J. Milner-Gulland. 2013. A novel approach to assessing the prevalence and drivers of illegal bushmeat hunting in the Serengeti. Conservation Biology 27:1355-1365. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12124
Nuno, A., and F. A. V. St. John. 2015. How to ask sensitive questions in conservation: a review of specialized questioning techniques. Biological Conservation 189:5-15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.09.047
Pheasey, H. 2020. Methods of and motives for laundering a wildlife commodity beyond captive farming-based systems: the harvest of olive ridley sea turtle eggs. Dissertation. University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.
Pheasey, H., G. Glen, N. L. Allison, L. G. Fonseca, D. Chacón, J. Restrepo, and R. A. Valverde. 2021. Quantifying illegal extraction of sea turtles in Costa Rica. Frontiers in Conservation Science 2:705556. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2021.705556
Pires, S. F., and W. D. Moreto. 2011. Preventing wildlife crimes: solutions that can overcome the ‘Tragedy of the Commons.’ European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 17:101-123. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10610-011-9141-3
Restrepo, J., E. G. Webster, I. Ramon, and R. A. Valverde. 2023. Recent decline of green turtle Chelonia mydas nesting trend at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Endangered Species Research 51:59-72. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01237
Robinson, J. G., and K. H. Redford. 1991. Neotropical wildlife use and conservation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Roe, D., T. Mulliken, S. Milledge, J. Mremi, S. Mosha, and M. Grieg-Gran. 2002. Making a killing or making a living? Wildlife trade, trade controls and rural livelihoods. Biodiversity and Livelihoods Issue No. 6. IIED and TRAFFIC, London, UK.
Romain, F., and C. Barboza Solís. 2020. Las inequidades de esperanza de vida según la provincia de nacimiento en Costa Rica entre 2013 y 2017. Población y Salud en Mesoamérica 18.
Rosser, A. M., and S. A. Mainka. 2002. Overexploitation and species extinctions. Conservation Biology 16:584-586. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.01635.x
salaryexplorer.com. 2023. Sales retail and wholesale average salaries in Costa Rica 2023. https://www.salaryexplorer.com/average-salary-wage-comparison-costa-rica-sales-retail-and-wholesale-c52f48
Scherr, S. J. 2000. A downward spiral? Research evidence on the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation. Food Policy 25:479-498. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0306-9192(00)00022-1
Seminoff, J. A. 2004. Marine turtle specialist group review, global status assessment green turtle (Chelonia mydas). The World Conservation Union (IUCN), Gland, Switzerland.
Solomon, J., S. K. Jacobson, K. D. Wald, and M. Gavin. 2007. Estimating illegal resource use at a Ugandan park with the randomized response technique. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 12:75-88. https://doi.org/10.1080/10871200701195365
Thorbjarnarson, J., C. J. Lagueux, D. Bolze, M. W. Kelmens, and A. B. Meylan. 2000. Human use of turtles, a worldwide perspective. Pages 33-84 in M.W. Klemens, editor. Turtle conservation. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., USA.
TRAFFIC. 2008. “What’s driving the wildlife trade? A review of expert opinion on economic and social drivers of the wildlife trade and trade control efforts in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR and Vietnam.” East Asia and Pacific Region Sustainable Development Discussion Papers. East Asia and Pacific Region Sustainable Development Department, World Bank, Washington, D.C., USA.
Troëng, S., and E. Rankin. 2005. Long-term conservation efforts contribute to positive green turtle Chelonia mydas nesting trend at Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Biological Conservation 121:111-116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2004.04.014
United Nations. 1992. Convention on Biological Diversity. Rio Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. https://www.cbd.int/doc/legal/cbd-en.pdf
United Nations. 2015. Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. United Nations General Assembly, New York, New York, USA.
Valverde, R. A., C. M. Orrego, M. T. Tordoir, F. M. Gómez, D. S. Solís, R. A. Hernández, G. B. Gómez, L. S. Brenes, J. P. Baltodano, L. G. Fonseca, and J. R. Spotila. 2012. Olive ridley mass nesting ecology and egg harvest at Ostional Beach, Costa Rica. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 11:1-11. https://doi.org/10.2744/CCB-0959.1
Velázquez Gomar, J. O., and L. C. Stringer. 2011. Moving towards sustainability? An analysis of CITES’ conservation policies. Environmental Policy and Governance 21:240-258. https://doi.org/10.1002/eet.577
Vice News. 2015. Poaching, drugs, and murder in Costa Rica, shell game. Video. Vice News, New York, New York, USA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OCnOvPFlL4
Villegas, S. 2014. Adolescent pregnancy in Costa Rica. Pages 257-279 in A. L. Cherry and M. E. Dillon, editors. International handbook of adolescent pregnancy. Springer, New York, New York, USA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-8026-7_14
Woods, C.S. 2015. Addressing prison overcrowding in Latin America, a comparative analysis of the necessary precursors to reform. ILSA Journal of International & Comparative Law 22:533-561.
Table 1. Pertinent quotes from key informant interviews.
|1||Demand||“...on the Caribbean side you are talking about the long standing culture of consuming turtle meat and that happens only on the Caribbean because of the Caribbean culture.”||Expert|
|“When I arrived here, the stone [crack cocaine] was already here ... It was more harmful, worse, because drug addicts were walking at dawn with eggs ... I could not almost take a nest to buy my food to continue living.”||Guide (Former illegal harvester)
|3||Illegal harvesters||“There are a number of people doing it, we know most of them, but some come in every year, and they are known poachers ... but normally live elsewhere ... and we have some families who we have always know to be poaching families ... all of the ones I know are drug users.”||NGO employee
|4||Illegal harvesters||“Unfortunately, it is easier to go to the beach, get some eggs and sell them ... in turtle season criminality in the village [Tortuguero] is going down because they can easier make money with turtle eggs than if you steal something.”||Tour guide and Tortuguero resident|
|5||Illegal harvesters||“... some of the younger kids now are into crack, they are the ones that sometimes go out there and steal some turtle eggs, if they sell it, it’s going to be for other people from different communities ... who has come and asked them for doing it”||Tour guide
|6||Trade chain||In response to where eggs are sold: “Mainly, the houses. In the houses they look for the clients. That is door to door or bar or ... they stand near the boat stops, then they make sales there.”||Costa Rican NGO worker|
|7||Trade chain||“I would say they can knock at 80% of the doors here in Tortuguero and say, ‘turtle eggs’ and they are going to sell it.”||Tour guide|
|8||Trade chain||“They know where to sell it which houses buy the meat, so they know where to knock on the door, but they don’t advertise it ... the buyer says I am going to go and get turtle, who wants, so they order 1 kg, 2 kg when he gets the turtles and sells them that much.”||Illegal harvester|
|9||Trade chain||“It’s a crack stone for a dozen eggs.”||Illegal harvester|
|10||Law enforcement||“Right now we are five nothing more, five but with squads, there are two squads. We are in total ten Coast Guards in this station ... We cover from there, from Jalova down to Matina.”||Coast Guard|
|11||Law enforcement and illegal harvesters||“... the problem is that here the poachers are already alert to the police ... after midnight there is no one walking the beach, the police do not walk the beach, then they [the poachers] arrive, they get in and loot the eggs.”||Police officer
|12||Law enforcement||“... the jails of this country are overcrowded; they will not put a person who stole turtle eggs and leave out one who killed another person ... some things are more important than others.”||Coast Guard|
|13||Law enforcement||“The problem is the laws of Costa Rica. We grab a boy with eggs, the expense of having him here, then a boat to take him to Guápiles and the same day they release him. They do not do anything to him!”||Police officer|
|14||Law enforcement||“Nobody here bribes any policeman because the laws are so stupid that you go with eggs and say, ‘I had no eggs, the eggs were there, [points to the floor] they are not mine.’ Then the judge throws the paper, ‘take your letter of freedom, you are free.’”||Illegal harvester|