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Saving the Seri Sea Turtles

A Mexican environmental group is using controversial PETA-style tactics in an attempt to prevent the killing of endangered sea turtles.
 
 
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Kino Bay, Sonora, Mexico -- Standing at the bow of the boat, Ramon Lopez -- an older Seri man -- watches the horizon. The boat travels through schools of fish, flocks of pelicans, mangrove estuaries, and an endless aqua sea punctuated by immense mountains on the horizon. It's on the badly-named Sea of Cortez that this indigenous community of Seri people bring their traditional knowlege to aid in the restoration of their most sacred relative: the sea turtle. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, a scantily-clad model pushes the same message: protect the turtles and their eggs.

As pelicans and osprey swoop down to catch their morning meals, Ramon sings songs to the turtles, trying to lure them in. The Seri (also known as Comcaac) people have a creation story linking them to many other Indigenous peoples of the North: after the Great Flood, the turtle swam to the bottom of the ocean and brought back earth to make the land new again. These same people, with ecological knowledge of thousands of years on the Gulf of California, are now an important part of a movement to protect these sea turtles and strengthen their own community.

Hunted originally for their meat, later for their shells, sea turtles have become increasingly endangered as local men, in search of more sexual prowess, purchase turtle eggs as a sexual stimulant and aphrodisiac.

Beaches in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero are nesting habitats for seven of the world's eight sea turtle species -- and all of them are in danger of extinction. After banning the hunting, sale and consumption of turtle eggs and byproducts in 1990, the Mexican government has launched an extensive campaign to protect sea turtles. But their habitats still remain endangered. It's estimated that 90 percent of the sea turtles' nesting habitat has been destroyed for beachside developments -- condominiums and hotels, largely for North Americans.

And men's drive to "get it up" continues to decimate the turtle population. Some 80 sea turtles were bludgeoned and butchered in one single massacre this August on the Guerrero coast. Why? For their eggs -- as many as 100 eggs can be removed from a dead female. On another stretch of Guerrero's coast, near Petatlán, at least 100,000 eggs have disappeared this nesting season.

A new, controversial and highly visible campaign to challenge the use of sea turtle eggs as aphrodisiacs is being led by an internationally known Argentinian model, Dorismar, as well as members of the mega-popular norteño group Los Tigres del Norte and a multitude of environmental organizations. Buxom, scantily clad and sporting a sexy "come hither" look, Dorismar -- also known as Dorita -- proclaims, "My man doesn't need turtle eggs … Sea turtle eggs DO NOT increase sexual potency!"

Echoing those sentiments, one anonymous partaker recalls, "They sort of tasted like salty snot, really disgusting... I never did get to see if they worked; I couldn't get them down my throat."

Drawing fire from groups like the National Women's Institute of Mexico -- which called the ad degrading to women -- the campaign has also drawn an immense amount of attention. National and international environmental organizations hope this attention will help the turtle population recover.

Far from the madding crowd of cleavage and sexual marketing, the Seri communities of Punta Chueca and Desemboque del Sur have a different approach to saving the turtles. In a small bay near their communities, they've observed "teenaged turtles" come to graze on a highly nutritious underwater sea grass. This past year, the Seri tagged hundreds of turtles and tracked others in an effort to nurture their restoration. For the first time in many years, seven green turtles came to Seri territory to nest.

Gabriel Hoeffer, a 21-year-old Seri sporting denim and a bandana, talks about finding turtles tagged a thousand miles away. "It's important that our traditional knowledge can help restore the turtles, they're a very sacred animal to us," he says.

Gabriel and other Seri youth have formed other associations to work in restoration of Seri environments, culture and economy. "The older turtles swim in the currents, that's how they travel so many thousands of miles. It's like a highway in the ocean," Ramon explains.

The Seri don't just hope to continue their sea- and Sonoran desert-based economy -- which provides up to 70 percent of their foods, according to Gabriel's estimates. They also hope to provide some cash for their economy through eco-tourism, and sale of some of their products through national and international fair trade and gourmet markets.

The Christensen Fund, a Bay Area-based foundation, has supported a number of these initiatives. Christensen Fund Program Officer Enrique Salmon considers the Seri projects to be a critical example of work to restore both ecosystems and cultures. "On a large, landscape scale, the Seri maintain a vast and critical library of Sonoran Desert and Sea turtle ecological knowledge accessible only in Seri origin stories and songs. This is why it's important to preserve...both the biological and cultural diversity of the region."

Elsewhere, Gary Nabhan, at Northern Arizona University's Center for Sustainable Environments is assisting in the marketing efforts and ecotourism support for the Seri.

Since September, federal officials and environmentalists have been placing the Dorismar ads on billboards near Mexico City, and nesting states including Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guerrero. Urging people to report illegal trade to the Federal Attorney General's Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa) at the toll-free 01-800-PROFEPA, the ad campaign will continue to draw attention and criticism.

The Seri plan on continuing to sing for the turtles and take care of their ecosystem -- which also faces threats from potential tidal energy-generating plants and shrimp aquaculture. But on the Sea of Cortez, a 200 million-year-old relative might have a chance of staying around for another millennium. It's only a sign of the times that one of the sea turtles' last hopes may rest on the cleavage of a supermodel.