Former turtle poachers now use their hunting skills to help marine turtle conservation efforts on the beaches of La Union in the Philippines.
“Because life was so difficult back then, the sea turtles were the easiest target for our daily meals because there weren’t that many fish to catch, so our folks would usually feed us the meat and eggs when we were young,” former turtle poacher Jessie Cabagbag said.
He now works as a sea turtle patroller on the beaches of La Union, which serve as nesting areas for the endangered olive ridley sea turtles.
“I stopped poaching when we received training and learned that what we were doing was illegal and that these turtles are already an endangered species. Because of climate change, we also have to protect these sea turtles because of the good they can do for the ecosystem,” Cabagbag said.
Coastal Underwater Resource Management Actions (CURMA) is leading the conservation programme around the beaches of La Union in the Philippines. Cabagbag gets money from CURMA for finding sea turtles or eggs – 20 pesos ($0.37) for each egg he collects, which is four times more than what he would usually get from selling it on the black market.
When the eggs are found, they are immediately transferred to CURMA’s egg hatchery, where they are placed in protected areas. Since October, Cabagbag has handed over more than 1,000 eggs to CURMA.
“I am overwhelmed with joy, especially when I find the eggs myself. Whenever they release the new turtle hatchlings onto our grounds, I am truly proud. Even our neighbours, they appreciate what I do because it is not easy. I am happy that I get to contribute to the conservation of the sea turtles,” the 40-year-old Cabagbag said.
He gets 500 pesos ($9.18) for finding a live sea turtle. Once he spots a female turtle, the animal is tagged and released safely into the ocean.
Since its start in 2009, CURMA has turned sea turtle poachers into its allies by offering them training and financial incentives. With their help, CURMA saved thousands of turtles and eggs from ending up in markets and on dinner plates.
Carlos Tamayo, the director of CURMA, said it took time to build trust in the local communities of La Union: “What really helped us is that we were able to convince one elderly fisherman who was a respected member of the community, and he was the one who talked to all the rest.”
That man told the other fishermen, ‘you know, we should just protect the turtles. And it’s much better if we can turn it over to CURMA. We can get a higher amount than what we would get if we would sell it illegally.’ Tamayo said. “So that actually helped. And by word of mouth, and by going into the communities.”
“Fast forward to today, and it’s our 12th season, and 98% of our patrollers were former poachers. So from poachers, now they are the protectors of the sea turtles,” he added.
CURMA is largely funded by private donations and partnerships with local schools and businesses. Tourists can also visit their sea turtle sanctuaries.