UA student volunteers helping to save sea turtles from extinction by thwarting poachers

By Yvonne Condes

Arizona Daily Wildcat

One rainy night on the beach in Mexico last summer UA graduate Nancy Haecker waited, video camera in hand, to get a shot of poachers stealing turtle eggs. She sat, hot and scared with her back to the jungle until she could get a shot. Finally two men came within her camera's eye, took the eggs and were gone.

She went to get Frank Smith, a retired forest ranger who patrols the beaches of San Francisco, Nayarit, five months of the year to catch poachers, she said. Poaching the eggs of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle is illegal in Mexico, so they paid an informant a few pesos for the names of the two men.

When they got them they went to the police and Haecker, Smith and two policeman armed with shotguns went to round up the poachers in Smith's car. By the time they got to the police station word had spread though the rural town of about 1,500 and a crowd had gathered. The poachers were let go, Haeker said.

"These people have been doing this all their lives. I would like to see the turtles come back in plenty so there were enough so they could do that, but there aren't," said Haecker, a UA fine arts and film graduate.

Haecker is a volunteer with Coastal Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization that educates, does scientific research and sets up conservation projects about marine life focusing on the Olive Ridley and Leatherback sea turtles. This is the second summer the group has organized a five-month trip to the coast of Mexico to study and help conserve the turtles.

The volunteers, consisting of college students, graduates, teachers and retired professionals pay for the trip themselves and this summer lived in a hotel along the beach, said Jeffrey Seminoff director of field research and cofounder of CCF. They worked at night collecting eggs and would take them to a nursery in order to ensure that they hatched and were not stolen by poachers or dug up by other animals.

"The sole purpose is to protect the species," said UA graduate Dan Dasse CCF project coordinator.

When the eggs are ready to hatch they are taken back to the beach with the goal being to "get as many hatchlings to the water as possible," Dasse said.

Educating children on the importance of saving the turtles and the dangers of poaching is a large part of

the summer projects and CCF , he said.

Steven Collins, an ecology and evolutionary biology senior, combined his education of biology and Spanish to teach the Marine Discovery program, part of an educational program developed by UA graduate Christine Lockwood, founder of the UA marine outreach program and CCF director of education.

About 45 children in San Francisco, Nayarit, took his free class to learn about turtles and other marine life. Educating children is important because if they learn young that certain animals are endangered the children will grow to be concerned adults, Collins said.

"They are all very concerned about the turtles. Their houses are right on the beach," Collins said.

CCF takes trips throughout the year, not all of which are work related. During spring break students can go to Baja California, Mexico, and another trip is offered during Christmas break.

The foundation is manned solely by volunteers, sometimes working 10-hour days with almost all of their funds received from private donations.

"It's a handful of people saying 'we want to save the turtle' . it blows me away the kind of work it entails," Haecker said.

It is time consuming, but with its rewards. The summer project is approximated to produce 900 hatchlings to the sea, but CCF is only at the camps five months out of the year on one beach.

"Poaching is a way of life down there. We're not the turtle police," Dassie said, "but it's a race against the nest."

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