Turtle conservationist murdered in Costa Rica

The conservation community has been rocked by the death of a 26 year old sea turtle conservationist, Jairo Mora Sandoval, who was killed on 31 May while on a nightly patrol of Moín Beach in Limón, Costa Rica.

The murder is the latest in an escalating conflict in the area between the conservationists trying to protect nesting turtles and their eggs, and poachers who are believed also to be involved in the illegal drug trade.

Last year several volunteers and a local research assistant were held at gunpoint and tied up at a hatchery run by WIDECAST-Costa Rica (the conservation organisation for which Jairo worked on a seasonal basis), and nests were raided. Local conservationists also report a constant campaign of intimidation directed toward staff, including death threats for those who refused to leave the area and its turtles to the poachers.

Investigations are ongoing, but Jairo is believed to have been killed by a group of at least five masked men who ambushed him and four international volunteers (one Spanish and three American women who were abducted but thankfully released).

Not long before his murder, Jairo had joined with other conservationists to speak out against turtle poachers in an article published by La Nación.

“Jairo was a brave young man who stood up for his beliefs and passion: turtles,” said turtle biologist, Christine Figgener. “I am honestly at a loss for words about what happened. I just hope that the Costa Rican government and authorities will, once and for all, do something and that Jairo’s death will not have been in vain.”

Fallen colleague

While the great majority of turtle nest protection programmes in Costa Rica are safe, this news does highlight the risks faced by those at the frontline of conservation and has sparked concern amongst the region’s turtle conservation community, which has rallied round to support Jairo’s friends, family and colleagues.

In a message to the IUCN’s Marine Turtle Specialist Group, co-chairs Rod Mast and Nick Pilcher paid tribute to their fallen colleague:

“Jairo’s death is a poignant reminder of the adversity faced by many in our field. Whether defending turtles or elephants, coral reefs or rain forests; protecting wildlife from the onslaught of those who would see it converted to money at any price poses grave risks, and Jairo paid the highest price for his dedication.

“We are sad to lose him, and are grateful for the gift he gave to the leatherbacks of Costa Rica and the example of bravery he sets for others who are willing to place their lives at peril for nature’s sake.”

Jairo Mora Sandoval. Credit: WIDECAST.

Jairo - gone but not forgotten. Credit: WIDECAST.

A coalition of conservation organisations, travel businesses, and other supporting institutions has raised nearly US$60,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers.

Dr Karen Eckert, Executive Director of WIDECAST, urges swift justice for Jairo: “To have lost a young biologist who cared so deeply about the biodiversity of his country and was willing to safeguard it – even in the face of personal threat – is unimaginably tragic.

“We have suspended our sea turtle patrols in Moín and we are doing everything we can to support the ongoing investigation into the killing. The entire world is watching this case, Jairo will not be forgotten.”

You can show your support by leaving a message for Jairo’s friends and family on a dedicated memorial page on Facebook. You can also make a donation to the Jairo Mora Sandoval Memorial Fund, which will help provide immediate assistance to Jairo’s family and carry out sea turtle conservation projects in his name.