Turtle conservationist shot dead 'by poachers' on Costa Rica beach

Jairo Mora Sandoval, 26, died just weeks after posting a Facebook plea for police help with turtle-egg thieves


Late in April a dedicated young Costa Rican conservationist, Jairo Mora Sandoval, logged on to his Facebook page, with its pictures of cavorting baby sea turtles and wild beaches, and typed out an urgent plea. "Can you send messages to the police to come to the Moin beach," he asked his friends, stressing that the officers must be armed and not afraid, "60 turtles are lost – there wasn't even a nest left. We need help and soon."

In a comment beneath the post, Mr Mora Sandoval, who was working to protect the endangered leatherback turtles on his country's Caribbean coast, explained that the beach was being targeted by "hueveros" (egg thieves). Five people liked the message and 135 shared it. But the response was insufficient.

The 26-year-old's naked body was found on the same beach shortly before 7am on Friday. His hands had been tied behind his back and he had been shot in the head after being kidnapped by a masked gang. Four of his female colleagues, all foreign volunteers, were also bundled into a car as they patrolled the beach and have given evidence to the police.

The murder has shed light on the criminal trade linked to the largest of living turtles. At around the same time last year, a group of six men armed with AK-47 assault rifles and 9mm handguns forced their way into a nursery on the same beach designed to protect young leatherbacks. Volunteers, many of them foreigners, were bound and gagged as the gang raided the hatchery for 1,520 eggs from the 19 protected nests.

In the Costa Rica newspaper La Nacion on 28 April, a few days after his Facebook warning, the young conservationist had written that delinquents were stamping out the sea turtle, and that environmentalists were being threatened by a mafia that was looting the nests for eggs, which were then sold to drug traffickers.

Mr Mora Sandoval, a biology student, worked for the state-run animal rescue group Paradero Eco-Tour and also for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (Widecast), a non-profit organisation. His Facebook postings are testimony to his passion for the work. Because the victim's mobile phone and money were taken, police are treating the murder as a robbery, but due to the kidnapping and type of killing they are not ruling out other courses of investigation.

Didiher Chacon, Costa Rica co-ordinator for Widecast, said there had been increased activity by poachers and that he suspected the murder was in retaliation for Mr Mora Sandoval having spoken out.

"With everything we know about what happened it seems like it was an act of revenge. Jairo didn't drink. He didn't smoke. He wasn't involved in those kinds of things. We think it must have had to do with his work." He added that drugs traffickers were unhappy that usually deserted beaches were being patrolled by environmentalists.

Turtle egg poaching has become a major problem around the Caribbean city of Limon, even though Costa Rica officially outlawed the practice in 1966. The Marine Turtle Population Law of 2002 allows a three-year prison sentence for anyone who "kills, hunts, captures, decapitates, or disturbs marine turtles". But until fairly recently it was common for Costa Ricans to head to the beach at nesting time and harvest vast quantities of turtle eggs, which are traditionally slurped in bars from a glass, with salsa and lemon.

In some areas of the country, the government has been trying to manage this human collection of eggs with an understanding of the need for conservation. But problems persist on the Caribbean coast, where the eggs have become a recognised currency, exchanged for drugs. In South-east Asia – and particularly in Malaysia, where leatherback eggs are considered a delicacy – turtle populations have been devastated by harvesting.

The threat to the leatherback, which can grow to 6ft in length and weigh up to 900lbs, has potential consequences for marine ecology. The turtles play an important role in keeping down the numbers of jellyfish.

The killing of Mr Mora Sandoval has shocked Costa Rica, and its President, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, went on Twitter to call for the police and judicial authorities to work closely together to solve what she called an "abominable murder".

Celso Gamboa, of the Limon police, defended the force by saying that 50 officers were assigned to guarding sea turtle nests but they could not accompany the environmentalists at all times.

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine