At first glance the expansive, flat beach in El Cuco, El Salvador appears empty at night. But the occasional flashlight burst reveals the presence of figures combing the beach – scanning the sand for sea turtles and their freshly laid eggs.

 

One nearly moonless night, as we began our walk from the volunteer house to the main property of the Tortuga Verde Hostel, we spotted a solitary El Salvadoreno, standing near the entrance to the beach. He was waiting – about 30 feet away – from a sea turtle laying eggs in the sand. Even after our eyes adjusted, we couldn’t see much, but we waited, casí 25 minutos, while she laid her eggs one by one.

 

As soon as we heard the turtle slapping her flippers and beating her body against the sand, the man began to approach her and gestured for us to follow. We could finally see her – a green sea turtle, most likely younger due to the lack of barnacles on her shell. She was thrusting her body from side to side to bury her newly laid eggs. The man began measuring the length and width of the turtle’s back. While the turtle was still performing her burying ritual, he lifted her heavy body by the shell and moved her about 5 feet away from the nest. He used his hands to dig deep into the hole, deftly harvesting fresh eggs one by one and tallying each dozen by marking the sand.

poacher-measuring

At this point, everyone had made a tight semi-circle around the turtle, flashlights blazing. She appeared exhausted and disoriented.

 

Apparently, harvesting turtle eggs (with a license) is legal in El Salvador, as long as half the eggs are sold to a government-run hatchery and the other half are left in the nest. However, because of minimal enforcement, this “law” is almost completely unheeded by the egg-harvesters.

 

In El Cuco, ‘poachers’ can sell their eggs to restaurants, a government-run hatchery or to La Tortuga Verde Hostel. According to La Tortuga volunteers, the restaurants and street vendors illegally purchase eggs for about $8 to $10 USD per dozen. The government-run hatchery buys the eggs for about $3 per dozen. La Tortuga Verde buys eggs for $3 to $7 per dozen, if the eggs are delivered the same night or the next morning to ensure the eggs are fresh and can be properly hatched.

 

Tom, the owner of La Tortuga Verde claims that the 2016 turtle season has seen the highest amount of poaching in El Cuco’s history. There will likely be no natural turtle births on the beach this season.

 

turtle-eggs

 

As for our mama turtle; she laid a walloping 146 eggs, then slowly dragged her way back to the safety of the ocean, rightly pissed off (if you can apply emotional states to a sea turtle) by the discoteca of flashlights surrounding her. The poacher uprooted all 146 eggs, loaded them into a plastic bag and rode off silently. He claimed he would sell them to the government-run hatchery.