Costa Rican environmentalist Jairo Mora Sandoval was passionate about protecting endangered leatherback turtles and their nests. That noble work may have cost him his life.
He was killed on May 31 at the age of 26.
Mora Sandoval was born in Costa Rica and became an animal lover at an early age. Nicknamed “Seal,” he grew up on a farm in Mata de Limon, rode horses and helped his family care for the area’s sea turtles. As a young adult, Mora Sandoval studied biology and worked for the animal rescue group Paradero Eco-Tour. In his spare time, he volunteered for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), a nonprofit group that protects turtle nests from poachers on the country’s Caribbean coast.
Leatherback turtles are the largest of living turtles, growing up to 7 feet and 2,000 pounds. While they play an important role in marine ecology by keeping jellyfish populations down, humans continue to decimate their nesting areas. Currently, the leatherback is listed as a critically endangered species whose numbers have reportedly fallen to almost one-fifth of what they were in 1980.
Although sea turtles are protected by law in Costa Rica, poachers raid the animals’ nests and sell the eggs on the black market for $1 each. The eggs are often consumed in a drink as an aphrodisiac or traded for drugs. In response, members of WIDECAST patrol the beaches where these turtles lay their eggs.
A few weeks before Mora Sandoval’s death, a team of journalists from La Nacion accompanied him on an overnight patrol. During the interview, he decried the government’s claims that police had been watching over the beaches. Mora Sandoval rescued 172 turtle eggs that night, but looters still managed to destroy nine nests. No police patrols were ever spotted.
In recent years, conservationists have been threatened by “hueveros” (egg thieves) for trying to protect the turtles and their habitat. Mora Sandoval’s friends told the media that he received numerous death threats and was once ordered, at gunpoint, to stop patrolling.
On the night of May 30, Mora Sandoval and four female volunteers were patrolling Moin beach in the Limon province, an area that is frequently used by drug traffickers and turtle egg poachers. The group was ambushed by five armed and masked men, who kidnapped and robbed the women. They later escaped from their attackers and contacted police.
Mora Sandoval’s naked body was found face-down on a beach the next morning. According to WIDECAST director Didiher Chacon, Mora Sandoval was bound and beaten. Autopsy results listed cause of death as asphyxiation and blunt force trauma to the head.
Since Mora Sandoval’s slaying, WIDECAST has been forced to cancel all patrols at Moin beach, leaving the sea turtle population particularly vulnerable.
“We can’t risk human lives for this project,” Chacon said. “But this is probably the exact result that the killers were hoping for.”
Environmentalists have submitted a proposal to the government asking for park rangers to have more authority to stop poachers and for the designation of a new protected area to be named after Mora Sandoval. Conservation groups have also offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his killers.
“Jairo’s murderers must be brought to justice so that sea turtle activists around Costa Rica and the world know that this will never be tolerated,” Todd Steiner, executive director of SeaTurtles.org, said. “The whole world is watching to make sure the Costa Rican government brings these thugs to justice and makes sea turtle nesting beaches safe for conservationists to do their work.”