Just before daybreak, Arcelio Fuentes stands on the beach and empties a basket holding 93 baby sea turtles into the churning surf. Some of them are snatched by preying sea gulls and frigate birds, but most make it out into Montijo Gulf to begin their mysterious, thousand-mile journey to the Galapagos Islands and beyond.
“I’ve done my part,” says Fuentes, a resident of this impoverished farming and fishing village on Panama’s Pacific coast, as he watches the 2-inch-long squiggly creatures disappear into the waves. “The rest is up to nature.”
Fuentes doesn’t raise cows or chickens like most of his neighbors. He raises sea turtles in a beach-side incubator that he built himself, with a little help from environmental donors. It’s his last-ditch effort to save the migrating sea turtles that still nest on Malena’s 2-mile stretch of beach. Their number had declined to 80 last year, from hundreds in the 1980s.
Fuentes, a serious, athletically built 39-year-old who earns a living building fiberglass fishing boats, says he raises the sea turtles “for love.”
“During my youth, I got accustomed to the abundance of fish, lobster, iguanas and turtles. I especially liked the turtles because they are very sympathetic, ingenuous animals, and totally defenseless,” says Fuentes, a devout evangelical Christian.
“Over the years fewer were arriving, and I thought, they want to live just like we do, so I’ll help them.”
Fuentes’ crusade is one of dozens of grass-roots rescue operations that have sprung up in communities in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean as people come to see the threatened sea creatures as part of their heritage, environment and just maybe the keys to better lives through eco-tourism.
Every night during the nesting season from September through November, Fuentes, his wife and three children, along with some like-minded neighbors, patrol the beach looking for nests, each containing 100 eggs or more. The nests aren’t hard to find -- the 3-foot-long turtles leave tracks like crochet stitches as they lumber up the banks to higher ground.
Fuentes digs up the eggs, about the size of pingpong balls, and transfers them to a 20-by-60-foot enclosed plot that serves as the incubator. He places them in holes about 20 inches deep, the same depth dug by the mother. About 47 days later, hatchling turtles dig their way out. The incubator plot is fenced to protect them from dogs, crabs and birds. And human predators.
Sometimes Fuentes and the other volunteers arrive too late: Poachers have grabbed the eggs to sell in nearby Santiago for 25 cents each, twice what a hen’s egg goes for. That $25 payday for a night’s work is a good wage in a country where 40% of the population makes less than $2 a day.
Fuentes, the son of a woodcutter, is an unlikely environmental champion. And this nondescript town of 130 people has little remarkable to offer a visitor other than the miracle of its migrating turtles. Malena serves as a way station for the turtles along an itinerary that covers thousands of miles of ocean expanse over their lifetimes of 100 years or more.
As such, it has become typical of other 21st century battlegrounds, where environmental interests conflict with economic ones.
Panama is home to several of those battlegrounds. Ten communities, all about as poor as Fuentes’, have made saving their nesting sea turtles a common objective. The government has declared half of those beach communities special marine reserves, making them off-limits to fishing, shrimping and development.
Fuentes is campaigning for Malena to be added to the list.
In neighboring El Salvador, six seaside communities protect their sea turtle nests with incubators and special marine reserve status, said Celina Duenas, a technician with the Salvadoran Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
Costa Rica has extensive community-based programs to save its giant leatherback turtles.
But environmental interests don’t always prevail. Duenas explained that El Salvador was permitting some communities to sell a portion of the eggs from turtles’ nests if the community committed to preserving the rest in incubators.
“We had to recognize that you can save some, but not all, of the eggs,” she said.
There are now community-based turtle preservation projects in 40 nations, said Karen Eckert, a Duke University marine biologist and director of the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network in Beaufort, N.C.
“Consciousness has been raised. This wasn’t happening 10 years ago,” said Argelis Ruiz, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City who has worked with Fuentes on preservation procedures.
But Fuentes’ program also points up how turtle conservation can divide a community. Many in Malena disagree with Fuentes’ single-minded effort to convert their pueblo into a turtle haven.
Several younger fishermen in this town 150 miles southwest of Panama City said they also wanted “economic development,” which would be advanced by the construction of a pier or breakwater that they asked the government to build.
The structures would help them catch more redfish, which is flown to Miami to fetch hefty prices and raise the standard of living.
“Now when the ocean is rough, we can’t leave the shore with our boats because it’s too risky,” said Alejandro Gonzalez. “A dock would also let us do more tourism, such as whale-watching trips.”
But a pier or breakwater might discourage or block turtles from coming ashore. Fuentes said he didn’t oppose such a project, and the Smithsonian’s Ruiz said one could be built without harming turtles “if it was designed correctly.”
But Salvadoran marine biologist Carlos Hasbun said the problem with a pier was the development that could ensue, such as housing, sea walls and the inevitable lighting that scares turtles away.
“Not only do the mothers avoid lights if they see them as they come ashore, but the hatchlings are attracted by light, and there are cases of them entering houses behind beaches after they are born instead of going toward the water to begin their migration,” Hasbun said.
Other Malena residents, such as homemaker Yolanda Moreno, want the way clear for new hotels to be built so more jobs are created. A road behind the beach should be built to make it more inviting to tourists, she said. The special marine reserve status would quash such plans, a shop owner here complained.
To his neighbors, Fuentes counsels patience, talking up the idea of eco-tourism. The entire community can someday benefit from a stream of foreign and domestic nature enthusiasts who will pay good money for the experience of seeing a loggerhead turtle come ashore to lay its eggs.
The key is in making sure that infrastructure such as hotels and lighting are located far enough from the beach so nesting turtles are not frightened away.
Eco-tourists have begun to trickle into Malena, paying $20 a night to stay at cabanas built with international assistance three miles from the beach. The visitors are invited to join the twilight patrols of the beaches in hope they will see a turtle come ashore.
But as Duenas of El Salvador’s Environmental Ministry put it, eco-tourism is a double-edged sword that, if poorly planned, can drive the highly sensitive turtles away.
What is clear is that people such as Fuentes are fighting a lonely, perhaps losing battle to reverse a trend that has seen numbers of migrating sea turtles fall dramatically in recent years along Central America’s Pacific coast, victims of development and resettlement.
“We’re losing ground,” marine biologist Hasbun said.
The number of turtles arriving at Malena beach has stabilized since the incubator was built in 2002 with the financial help of MarViva, a Panama City conservancy group. But it is much too early to credit the incubator, because hatchlings are thought to take 35 or 40 years to begin reproducing.
Despite the challenges, Fuentes keeps his crusade alive. He recalls the day 10 years ago when he decided to make turtle preservation his avocation. It was the day he came across three turtles that had been killed by packs of wild dogs, ripping at the mother turtle’s innards to get at the eggs.
“We then had to poison the dogs,” he said, aware of the irony of killing one form of life to preserve another.
“I told people that there are plenty of dogs in the world, but turtles are scarce.”