For years now, one of Rustic’s most popular programs – the Turtle Conservation Project – has focused on saving vulnerable and endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica. As a result thousands of turtles have survived in an increasingly challenging environment.
The Central American nation has four types of sea turtles: the critically endangered Hawksbill, the endangered Green turtle and the vulnerable Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles. Among other things, sea turtles are important because they help maintain healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs. They also help control the jellyfish population and their nests provide nutrients that contribute to coastal vegetation.
The program’s Operations Manager Felipe Hernandez, who has a degree in Sustainable Tourism Management, says these animals face many obstacles in their bid for survival. Aside from natural predators who rely on the turtles for food, the creatures also die from pollution and poachers who use turtle eggs to make a popular bar drink.
Alumna Brice Cooper learned first-hand about these challenges when she traveled with Rustic to Costa Rica. She says both the adult and baby turtles faced danger from fishing nets, straws, and plastic soda can rings. Plus, artificial lights often confuse the animals that naturally use moonlight to guide them back to the ocean.
“It is almost heart-wrenching to think about all that these animals go through and have to be wary of in order to survive to see another day. The fact that we as humans are responsible for the lion’s share of the struggles that these animals face is deeply saddening,” Cooper said.
Fernandez says one of his more memorable moments on the program was when he showed the students a picture of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. The students responded by creating a petition urging one large company to stop utilizing single-use plastic.
“Personally, every time I read an article or watch a documentary about conservation or climate change… I’m disappointed to see what we have done to this planet and to these species,” Fernandez said. “But when I’m going out on a project with young people… their passion and energy is contagious and working with them gives me hope.”
During the one week program, students ages 13-20 work in the Camaronal National Wildlife Refuge on the Nicoya Peninsula in the northwest of the country. At night the students walk around the beach on the Pacific Ocean, looking for turtle nests. When they find one, they gather the eggs and bring them to a hatchery. In some cases, they do leave eggs on the beach for predators who need the food source.
At the hatcheries, the students also do projects, and they take part in beach cleanup efforts. When not working, teens enjoy the beach, take surfing lessons and go on a boat tour to search for dolphins. They also take a local art class.
To read more about the project’s details, please visit our program page and watch the videos below where students talk about their experiences helping with turtle conservation in the summer of 2021.