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Turtles Come Thundering Back After Mexico Bans Butchery of Them : Environment: But egg thieves and hunters still pose a danger to the animals.


ESCOBILLA, Mexico — Hosts of olive ridley turtles crawl from the pounding surf, in a season more peaceful than the last, to lay their eggs on a beach that stretches to the horizon.

Olive ridleys were butchered by the tens of thousands a year ago, but in May the government forbade the killing.

Fishing boats no longer prowl the waters off the main nesting beach. The slaughterhouse 12 miles away is silent and abandoned, its roof collapsed inside the concrete-block walls.

Not all the danger is gone, however.

Biologists working out of a nearby camp still race egg thieves to the nests. Authorities recently confiscated 944 skins, representing half as many dead turtles, in a village up the coast known in the past for clandestine slaughter.

Fishermen who lived by killing sea turtles have few alternatives.

Those in the cooperative at San Agustinillo, where the slaughterhouse sits derelict, were well off last season. Now they wonder how to feed their families.

"We all know the ecologists have money to take food home every day without any problem, and they've put us on a diet," Silverio Alvarez said of the pressure to stop the killing of sea turtles.

By all accounts, there are more turtles this year--in part because of the ban and in part, it seems, because it is just a good year for turtles.

"I think I could definitely say the death toll has decreased," said Georgita Ruiz, a veterinarian who has studied turtles for 13 years.

"There are more turtles nesting on the beach than in previous years. They have natural surges in nesting activity, but I think it's logical that if there isn't as much disturbance where they're going to nest, you're going to see more."

She added, however: "People are still people and they're still hungry. They're going to beg, borrow, steal or kill to get what they need."

Ruiz runs the Pronatura conservation organization's turtle program at Escobilla, 300 miles southeast of Mexico City on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca state.

Elpidio Marcelino Lopez said the 10 to 15 boats he saw capturing turtles 200 yards off the beach last year aren't there this season. Marcelino is a biologist from Oaxaca State University who has spent several seasons at the Escobilla camp.

Conservationists say some killing continues despite the ban decreed by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

"We know there are two clandestine slaughterhouses," said Homero Aridjis, president of the Group of 100, an environmental organization.

He said they were discovered on secondary nesting beaches, one of which also is used by leatherback turtles. Aridjis said there was no indication of how many turtles were being processed there.

Biologists move the eggs from nests on the beach to nursery areas at the camp.

"If we had 200 nests, they'd steal 201," Marcelino said of the egg thieves.

Mexico was the world's leading killer of sea turtles and Japan its biggest customer.

The victims generally were olive ridleys, the most numerous of the seven species of sea turtles. Six of the seven species are found in Mexico.

What makes olive ridleys special are their arribadas , mass nestings that occur about once a month from July to December. Biologists estimate that 75,000 nested on 1 1/2 miles of the Escobilla beach during the October arribada , more than in all of 1988 and more than half the 1989 total.

Marcelino also said more are nesting between arribadas this year.

Pairs of turtle tracks make stripes on the beach, one from the water, the other returning, their edges scrolled like ocean waves. The tracks going up the beach are a bit deeper, because of the 10 pounds of eggs in a 100-pound turtle.

If there is only one track, a turtle is at the end of it. Her back flippers, curled like hands, scoop out a hole where she lays 100 or so eggs the size of golf balls. Then she fills the hole, tamping down the sand, and heads back to the sea.

Olive ridleys have nine other major nesting beaches worldwide, but the level of killing wiped out the two or three other major sites in Mexico.

"There was no reason to think Oaxaca wouldn't go the same way," Ruiz said.

An estimated 70,000 turtles were killed in 1989. The legal limit, divided among licensed cooperatives, was 23,000.

In addition to forbidding the olive ridley kill, the presidential decree increased the government commitment to enforce bans on killing other turtle species and the taking and selling of eggs, shells, skins and other products. It also supports research.

In San Agustinillo, there were two things to do: capture turtles or work at the slaughterhouse. Both stopped at the end of May.

"Sometimes we borrow money, or you don't eat beans, you eat tortillas, just to buy school supplies for the children," said Alvarez, the idle fisherman.

He said he had earned about $140 from turtles during peak months, as much in five days as fish brought the rest of the month. With their minds on nesting, turtles are easy to grab.

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