‘Turtle Whisperer’ Turns Poachers Into Allies

| 8/20/2011 8:50:43 AM

Eastern Pacific hawksbill sea turtle

A conservationist working to save endangered sea turtles is taking a counterintuitive approach—he’s befriending the poachers. Alexander Gaos, dubbed “the turtle whisperer” in Conservation magazine, has found 500 new eastern Pacific hawksbill turtle nesting sites in El Salvador and Nicaragua by forging ties, and trust, with the local fishermen who know the terrain better than anyone else.

He tells Conservation:

"These were folks who thought of “conservationists” as people who got you thrown in jail, got your beach closed, and turned it into a turtle project. I tried to tell them I was not there to take names, call the cops, or bag on them for eating turtle eggs. When they asked me whether I ate turtle eggs, I sometimes told them: “Yes, sure, I’m not going to lie to you.” Then I’d challenge them, telling them that scientists thought hawksbills were extinct. They’d say: “No, they’re rare, but still around . . . we’ll take you out to see them.”"

Sometimes cash is part of the equation. In Nicaragua, Gaos’ conservation organization, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative, is paying a fishing cooperative $40 for every nest sight its members protect.

Gaos explains why he makes the effort to work with poachers and fishermen:

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