In June 2017, Palm Beach Post Reporter Julio Poletti visited Rancho Nuevo, the largest conservation camp for the most endangered sea turtle in the world, the Kemp’s Ridley. What he found was a species-changing conservation project shared between two nations fighting to keep alive the sea turtle that humans nearly wiped off the planet.
Below is a letter from one such turtle, a plea from her to the people she needs to keep her fellow turtles alive.
My name is Julieta and I’m writing this letter to you because my family’s life is in danger. As we approach the end of our nesting season this month, I can’t help but think of what will happen to us next year if humans don’t change their habits.
I’m an old Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. I was tagged a while ago. Now, I’m not bragging, but I’m considered a very special sea turtle. I’m the rarest and smallest in the world. And this comes with a big price: I’m also the most endangered sea turtle on Earth.
My light, olive green-yellow skin and shell makes me stand out from the rest. At an average of two feet in length and 100 pounds, I’m considered petite. I’m also the only sea turtle in the world named after a person: Richard Kemp, a local fisherman from Key West, Florida. I’m hoping you can continue your countryman’s interest and desire to bring attention to our species. Kemp submitted our kind for identification in the 1900s.
You probably don’t know this, but I’ve been a critically endangered sea turtle since 1970. That’s longer than any other sea turtle in the world.
But see, it wasn’t always like that. Back in the 1940s, my family was huge. I had thousands of siblings, aunts and uncles. In one single arribada, or arrival of turtles to lay eggs in a day, around 20,000 female Kemp’s Ridley would nest hundreds of ping-pong sized eggs. And these babies would later swim with us, grow with us and procreate as adults.
Most of us are born either in Mexico or in the United States, with 90 percent of our mothers preferring to lay eggs at Rancho Nuevo, a spectacular 18.6 miles of beach in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Nowadays, our reality is far from pretty.
Only about 5,000 of us will lay eggs in one single arribada. Why the decrease? Well, my friend, humans who are in and out of the water — along with other predators — have taken advantage of our vulnerability. We are slow, gentle, and have no way of defending ourselves or our hatchlings.
In fact, a film by Andres Herrera from 1947 revealed the monstrosity that our families have lived through. His film shows you what nearly led to our extinction. There was just nothing we could do. Thousands of people and tourists visited Rancho Nuevo. They would steal our eggs by the millions. They killed our mothers and grandmothers.
It was a higher death rate than most terrorist attacks to humans in the world. The film revealed more than 40,000 Kemp’s Ridley turtles trying to nest while people slaughtered them.
I hate to get too visual here, but you have to know. What’s do you humans say? Know better, do better. Yes, that’s it. I share these details so you can know better and then do better.
During our near extinction, our females were cut into pieces with sharp knives while still alive and pregnant. Their eyes were removed, necks sliced and flippers cut until we bled to death. These people thought they had won a lottery because our skin would later be worn as luxury shoes and handbags. Our babies never saw the sunlight, never felt the cool ocean water between their fins. It was a dark, dark time. They were murdered before they had a chance to hatch.
Video below: Reporter Julio Poletti witnessed our hatchlings rushing to the ocean.
My family, or as you might say, my people... Our eggs were taken from of the nests and squeezed out as edible shots of energy. Others were boiled and eaten as an aphrodisiac, while many others were sold in public markets or in the streets. Our hatchlings already born with all odds against them: Only 1 out of 1000 in average survive and reach adulthood.
For years, and still to this day, the population of my family is decreased significantly because of people who think we’re a tourist attraction. People often stop our adult females who are trying to get to the beach to lay their eggs, for pictures! It’s just cruel. Some even lift us from the sand and take us back to the water because they think we’re lost.
Can you imagine trying to deliver babies and being stopped by hundreds of paparazzi who want to take your picture? Or better yet, imagine being forced back to your house when you were almost at the hospital and ready to deliver your baby?
Think about it... about the physical pain we suffer, the fear of being slaughtered for leather and the hopelessness we have for our offspring. Sometimes when we see humans gathering around us, we’re forced to rush back into the ocean — if they let us. This is part of our new survival. Ironic that it’s also killing us, huh?
Luckily, today we have something that my ancestors didn’t. We have some great people in America and in Mexico helping else. So while this sad reality still happens today, it’s not nearly as bad as it was back in the day.
Thanks to the Kemp’s Ridley Binational Project, our species has a shot at life again. The project by Mexico and The United States protects our eggs from harvesting, predators and tourists.
The Kemp’s Ridley Binational Project is trying to get the Kemp’s Ridley family to a self-sustaining number where we no longer need the intervention of humans to exist. It’s the largest conservation program of our species consisting of six camps throughout Mexico under the supervision of The Gladys Porter Zoo managing the US portion and the Commissión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) managing the Mexican portion.
An estimated 62 percent of the registered nests during the 2017 nesting season at Tamaulipas were protected in corrals by the Kemp’s Ridley Binational Project, said Luis Jaime Pena, the Curator of Conservation Programs at the Gladys Porter Zoo.
Actually, the 2017 nesting season has been the best in the history of the Binational Project. The number of registered nests in 2017 was 35 percent higher than last year. That’s a total of 24,569 nests.
By season’s end on September 30, 2017, the number of hatchlings released into the Gulf of Mexico from the six sea turtle camps at Tamaulipas will be a little over 900,000.
The camps have reached carrying capacity though. There isn’t enough infrastructure, facilities or funding to adequately handle more staff. That means the number of corrals will remain the same.
“We do a good job, but we could be doing a better job with adequate funding to increase the percentage of nests protected in corral and ensuring a higher recruitment into the population,” said Pena.
Without the efforts of these two nations, we’d likely go extinct. It’s not an easy job for the employees. They wake up at sunrise everyday during nesting season, patrol the beach every two hours until sunset, face and stop hunters at nesting sites who often carry weapons, tag nests, relocate eggs to safer corrals away from humans, cover the nests with fabrics to prevent flies from eating the hatchlings and release millions of them to the ocean.
Well before people started drawing borders and building walls, we swam, worked and bred all over the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. We especially love hanging out around Florida and Louisiana. We have the right to live freely in the ocean and procreate safely in this wonderful place we share and call home, Earth.
Next time you see any turtle in and out of the water, please look but don’t touch. Give us space and share the beach with us. Just like you, we want to live a good life here.
Julieta, a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the most endangered sea turtle in the world.
To read more about the Kemp’s Ridley Project and to help, click here. And watch the video below.
P.S. from Julieta: I would like to thank Charlie Abrego and Luis Jaime Pena from The Gladys Porter Zoo and their team. They’ve been so generous with their time and their resources to help my species at the Rancho Nuevo conservation camp in Mexico.
And shout out to The Palm Beach Post, which was the only news organization in the world that visited Rancho Nuevo in 2017 to learn and spread the word about the struggles of the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle.