From Poachers to Protectors

05/01/2023
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    Carlos Tamayo works for CURMA. He snaps a photo of a turtle returning to the sea after laying eggs. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)
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    The Cabagbag  family looks for nests in the sand. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)
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    Johnny Manlugay removes eggs from a nest. He will put them in a safe place. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)
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    Baby sea turtles leave their nest. (123RF)
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    A mother sea turtle left tracks in the sand. (123RF)
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Wooden stick and bucket in hand, Johnny Manlugay sets out on a hunt for sea turtle eggs on the beach in La Union, Philippines, his headlamp shining onto the sand.

Manlugay, 55, knows all about spotting turtle nests. His grandfather taught him how as a boy. Back, then, though, his family stole the eggs from turtles to trade or eat. Now Manlugay has gone from egg poacher to egg protector.

“We didn’t know poaching was illegal and that we should not eat turtle eggs and meat,” he says. “I’ve learned to love this work.”

Carefully transferring each egg into his pail, Manlugay drops in some sand from the turtle nest too. Later, he’ll turn the eggs over to the group spearheading a conservation program on the beaches: Coastal Underwater Resource Management Actions (CURMA).

Five species of sea turtles live in the Philippine archipelago: Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Leatherback, and Olive Ridley. Each kind is endangered and routinely harvested for eggs, meat, and shells. Now conservationists train poachers to help save thousands of turtles. This brings to mind Paul’s injunction in Ephesians 4:28: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”

“We talked to the poachers, and it turned out poaching was just another means for them to earn a living,” says Carlos Tamayo, CURMA’s director of operations. They thought “they had no choice.”

Sea turtles lay 100 eggs to a nest on average. Around 35 or 40 of these nests appear each year on La Union beaches. That figure doubled during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic when so many people stayed indoors. “Last season alone, for example, we had 75 nests and we released close to 9,000 hatchlings,” Tamayo says.

Volunteers receive 20 pesos ($0.37) for each egg collected—four times what they might earn from selling them.

Another former poacher, Jessie Cabagbag, also grew up eating turtle meat and eggs but has now used proceeds from protecting eggs to start a new enterprise. He bought a tricycle to ferry passengers for pay.

Cabagbag, whose wife and seven-year-old son accompany him in patrolling the beach, has handed more than 1,000 eggs to CURMA since October.

Tourists flock to spot the blue-gray hatchlings scurrying madly down the sloping beach to reach the water after they are released.

Cabagbag says, “I am truly proud.”

Why? Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it. But when we know better, we can do better.

Pray for people of the Philippines struggling to support their families.