Thousands of leatherback turtle eggs and hatchlings have been crushed by heavy machinery along a Trinidad beach widely regarded as the world's densest nesting area for the biggest of all living sea turtles, conservationists said.
Government work crews with bulldozers were redirecting the Grand Riviere, a shifting river that was threatening a hotel where tourists from around the globe watch the huge endangered turtles lay their eggs.
But several conservationists who monitor turtle populations say the crews botched the job, digging up an unnecessarily large swath of the important nesting beach in the tiny coastal town on Trinidad's northern shore.
Sherwin Reyz, a member of the Grand Riviere Environmental Organisation, estimated that as many as 20,000 eggs were crushed or consumed by the scores of vultures and stray dogs that descended upon the narrow strip of beach to eat the remains after the operation by the Ministry of Works.
"They had a very good meal. I was near tears," said Mr Reyz, who helped save hundreds of hatchlings that were uninjured when they were dredged up by the heavy machinery. "It was a disgusting mess."
Leatherbacks, which can grow to more than seven feet long, can weigh a ton and live to 100 years, will return to lay their eggs on the beach of their birth.
The nesting ground of Grand Riviere is so popular with the globally endangered species that nest-digging females sometimes accidentally dig up others' eggs.
Marydele Donnelly, director of international policy for the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy, said avoidable losses of thousands of eggs and hatchlings is always a cause for concern but "this one event will not change the course of leatherback conservation in the Caribbean".
The hotelier who had been pressing Trinidad's government for months to redirect the Grand Riviere was also shocked and dismayed by the end result.