Turtle eggs provide lessons in wildlife conservation, culture

By Joseph Altman Jr.

Arizona Daily Wildcat

A group of students and biologists from the UA chose turtle eggs over holiday gifts when they visited Mexico during winter break to learn more about coastal wildlife conservation.

Four undergraduates and two biology graduate students spent three weeks with Mexican biologists, gaining hands-on experience during the trip which spanned 2,200 miles of the Pacific coast.

Jay Nichols, a graduate student in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, was one of the guides on the three week trip.

He said the group met with Mexican biologists and explored a wide variety of wildlife while also reading articles related to conservation.

"We investigated marine turtle ecology and nesting behavior and wetlands, and compared temperate versus tropical wetland species," said Jeff Seminoff, graduate student in the school of renewable natural resources.

"Marine turtle populations are severely depleted because of the hunting of adults and the poaching of eggs," Seminoff said.

Even though the group was on the trip to learn, Nichols said the trip was very casual.

"We stressed the cultural aspects as well," Nichols said. "It was a total immersion approach. It gave (the students) a good feel for the diversity and different kinds of conservation practices."

Seminoff said one of the most important parts of the trip was the cultural context of conservation.

"While in America, we say they shouldn't eat turtle eggs, but a lot of people down there use that for sustenance," Seminoff said.

Eddie Alvarado, an ecology and evolutionary biology senior, was one of the four students on the trip, and said the cultural aspect was critical to his understanding of conservation.

"I got to see both sides of the story I saw the actual father looking for (turtle) eggs so he could feed his family," Alvarado said. "It made things more interesting because I had both perspectives. Even though we see these as endangered species, people have been living off that land so long."

Alvarado said he is using his experience to work on an independent study of how the Mexican government regulates poaching and other forms of animal exploitation.

Each of the students who went on the trip are now working on independent study projects which tie in to their experiences in Mexico, Nichols said.

Gail Grimes, an ecology and evolutionary biology senior, is working on a study of leatherback turtles after returning from the odyssey.

Grimes said she liked the opportunity "to actually be the one saving the turtles and letting them go in the water, and being the one to beat poachers to the eggs.

"It helped me a lot to understand conservation. To actually experience it one-on-one with nature was amazing," she said.

The trip was made possible through the Coastal Conservation Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs a turtle conservation camp in Mexico. Both Nichols and Seminoff are involved with the foundation.

"CCF's biggest efforts are focusing on beaches where turtles come in," Seminoff said. "That's a summertime project, but with this trip, it's kind of an ecological as well as an anthropological study."

The foundation also promotes environmental education in Tucson. In conjunction with the UA, the organization does presentations for children from kindergarten to grade 12 in Tucson Unified School District schools. UA students earn credit by assisting CCF in its teaching endeavors.

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