About an hour west of our Huatulco hotel a soldier carrying a large assault rifle pulled us over. He spoke to the driver, looked briefly at the seven of us in the van, and waved us on, past a sandbagged bunker where one of his buddies regarded us with deadpan boredom as we rolled past his tripod mounted sub-machinegun. The military checkpoint just outside the village of Puerto Angel is not there to discourage drug runners, or rebels — it’s there to protect the turtles.
For thousands of years the broad sandy beaches along this part of Mexico’s Pacific coast have been the nesting sites for seven of the world’s eight species of marine turtles. Guided by some mysterious internal map implanted in their brains as they emerge from their eggs and first flop into the sea, the mature females return to lay their eggs on the same beach where they were born. And they come in the tens of thousands. In a precisely coordinated landing they drag themselves above the high tide line, bury themselves in the sand and, with their rear flippers, dig a hole for their eggs. Even before the first humans settled here few of the leathery, ping-pong ball-sized eggs escaped predation, and fewer still of the tiny hatchlings made it from their solar-heated nests across the sand to the water’s edge. But enough survived to maintain a stable, healthy population.
And then the first men came. They named the beach Mazunte, a native word meaning “please lay eggs”, and the turtles brought them both food and wealth.
At first the annual return of the turtles seemed an easily harvested and inexhaustible resource. An estimated 50,000 turtles were slaughtered each year and the eggs, meat and shell from Mazunte’s abattoir provided a good living for the local population — until the numbers began to decline. By 1990 scientists had established that several marine turtle species were in serious trouble and the Mexican government imposed a total ban on their harvest. The move came none too soon for the turtles, but for the people whose livelihood depended on the turtle industry it spelled economic disaster. Many of them resorted to poaching and, despite strict military and police surveillance; the illegal slaughter of marine turtles is still a problem in Mexico and many other parts of the world.
Ironically the former killing beaches of Mazunte were chosen as the site for the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga (CMT), a research centre dedicated to the study and preservation of marine turtles. It opened to the public in 1994 and a year later it hosted the Twelfth International Conference on the Conservation of the Marine Turtle. Today its modern laboratories and dedicated technical staff support teams of local and visiting marine biologists and its gardens and aquariums have become a major tourist destination. We toured the facility with a student intern who guided us through terraced cactus gardens, where several species of fresh water and land turtles are on display. He led us past the centre’s myriad research tanks and into the main aquarium. As I watched the huge, ungainly creatures sculling slowly around their glass-fronted tanks I thought how vulnerable they are. Barely able to drag themselves on land and with a top speed of one to five km/h in the water their only defense is their shell, and that is no defense at all against human hunters.