A Light Goes Out

Shortly after 11 p.m. on the night of Thursday May 30, 2013, a truck with five passengers slowed to a halt in the stillness of Costa Rica’s Moin Beach. With the engine’s drone lowered to idle, the boom and back-sizzle of waves to the east grew more pronounced. Headlights lit up a fallen palm tree blocking the dirt-road ahead—the only way south to the town of Moin, lights glittering in the distance.

Jairo Mora Sandoval (“Hai-ro”), a young Costa Rican biologist, jumped out of the passenger side. He had been perched at the edge of his seat, neck craned, scanning the dark curve of shoreline in search of the giant backs of leatherback sea turtles surfacing close to shore.

A leatherback sea turtle laying her eggs by night

A leatherback sea turtle laying her eggs by night

Four young women waited in the idling vehicle. Almudena, a Spanish veterinarian, was at the wheel. Rachel, Katherine and Grace, college students from the United States, were in the back seat. They were all working for Costa Rica Sanctuary, a wildlife rescue organization near Moin run by Vanessa Lizano. The students were planning to catch a flight back home in the morning.  The palm tree lay straight across the road, as if deliberately positioned. Jairo recognized the warning sign, but his gait was confident. He had never let fallen trees— or man-made potholes, stolen car batteries or slashed tires— stop him from patrolling the desolate miles up and down Costa Rica’s beaches in search of sea turtles and their egg-laden nests, ready for rescue.

The night was moonless, humid and warm, with temperatures in the seventies— typical for May’s end along the tropical coastline in Central America. Strong gusts and distant rumblings foretold a coming storm. A waning half-moon was on the verge of rising over the Caribbean Sea, though its light would soon be all but smothered by cloud cover. The warmth, cloud cover and moon phase made it a particularly good night for sea turtles, which emerge to lay their eggs under cover of darkness.

Leatherback sea turtle returning to sea

Leatherback sea turtle returning to sea

If a rustling in the shadows to the west was out of synch with the rhythm of wind-churned palm trees, Jairo did not notice. He and his team had driven north along the 10-mile beach, which ends at the Boca Rio Matina Estuary, then doubled back south.  They were not the only people combing through the shores that night. About 20 minutes before the halt, they had come upon a leatherback nest. Hueveros (egg poachers) also discovered the nest. Guti, one of the poachers who had worked part time at Costa Rica Sanctuary, was among them. The two parties divided the clutch of eggs between them—half went to the hueveros and the other half to the Jairo’s team.  He knew to allow poachers to take “their share.” Along a shoreline where machetes or AK47 guns often speak before words, such agreements can be the difference between life and death.

The poachers’ half would be sold illegally for about 1 US dollar per egg in the Costa Rican marketplace, where they are considered to be aphrodisiacs.

The eggs of leatherback sea turtles - taken from their nests by poachers. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

The eggs of leatherback sea turtles – taken from their nests by poachers. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

Jairo’s half was carefully placed in the truck. Pulling away, Almudena slowed down for a police patrol car and the police leaned out to warn Jairo about a dangerous group of people wandering the beaches.

On a normal night, the sea turtle eggs would be destined for the hatchery at Costa Rica Sanctuary. There they would be buried in an urn-shaped burrow dug some four feet underground, to match the conditions of the natural nest where they had been laid by the female sea turtle. Then they would be snugly covered with sand—in the hope that a healthy batch of hatchlings would emerge 8-10 weeks later and scramble to sea.

But May 30 was not about to be a normal night.  As Jairo neared the fallen tree, five armed men wearing masks surfaced from the shadows. Four tied his hands behind his back and one took his cell phone. Even as he tried to reason with them, Jairo was thrown in the back of the truck. Almudena was ordered to step out of the driver’s seat, searched roughly and forced into the back seat. The men seized the turtle eggs and the women’s cell phones. They clambered in; one began driving. The operation was swift, and seemed well planned.

Almudena reached back through a gap in the back seat and held hands with Jairo. The truck stopped in front of a ramshackle hut, where the women were forced out by two of the masked men. The other three drove away with their prisoner Jairo.

The two men led the women into the shack and their shoes were taken. The captors declared that Jairo had failed to “respect their rules” and Almudena argued with them. Eventually the men left for “a shipment” and the women rushed back towards Costa Rica Sanctuary barefoot, in silence. Their hike took the better part of ninety precious minutes.

“I got their calls at 3:45 in the morning,” said Vanessa Lizano, who founded Costa Rica Sanctuary to treat rescued or injured sloths, spider monkeys, and howler monkeys, and to protect turtle eggs in a hatchery. She immediately sent a series of texts to the stolen phones. “I was messaging them not to hurt Jairo in any way. I was saying we can work something out, I can pay you. But I think by that time he was already dead.”

By the time the police arrived at 6:30 a.m. the following morning, Jairo’s body was lying face-down in the sand.  He had died of a blow in the back of his head, sand in his mouth, throat and nostrils. As if “to silence him,” said Didier Chacón, the Costa Rica Director, of Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST), a supporter of Costa Rica Sanctuary. “A clear message to our organization.”

“I don’t think they meant to kill him” argued Carlyn Samuels, a British conservation biologist who worked with Jairo for several months in 2012, while serving as the volunteer coordinator for WIDECAST’s local operations in Costa Rica. Samuels remembers the “desperately poor” poachers living along Moin Beach in shacks without electricity. Some of them came to the sanctuary to charge their cell phones. “They just wanted to scare him.”

Jairo Mora Sandoval was two units away from graduating with a long-earned degree in biology he could barely afford—since most of his $200/month salary was sent to family members in the remote coastal town of Gandoca, located close to Costa Rica’s border with Panama, 69 kilometers southeast of Moin.

A newly-hatched leatherback sea turtle crawls out to sea for the first time. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

A newly-hatched leatherback sea turtle crawls out to sea for the first time. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels


How did Jairo grow passionate enough to risk his life for sea turtle conservation? The answer lies in Gandoca itself, surrounded by banana plantations, rich dripping rainforests, and bordered to the east by beaches that are now protected as part of Gandoca-Manzanillo Parque Nacional (National Park). Long before the park came into existence— before funds, media attention and a local non-profit (Asociación ANAI) began drawing in tourists from all over the world, Jairo’s grandfather, Jerónimo Matute, was pivotal in bringing the community together to end egg poaching along Gandoca’s beaches. His work began in the early ‘70s, about a decade after the work of Dr. Archie Carr, a professor from the University of Florida, became known along the Costa Rican coastline.

Carr had tracked sea turtle movements through the Caribbean.  He used metal tags attached to the rear flippers of green sea turtles and offered rewards to anyone who mailed them back. In the 1960s, several were mailed to him from turtles caught in Costa  6  Rican waters near Moin, Puerto Limon and Cahuita.  Green turtles from Costa Rica were found in waters near Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad.

Leatherback turtles may travel much farther. They are the world’s largest, deepest diving, widest-ranging and most endangered sea turtles. Nesting in tropical beaches around the world, they can be found hunting in far northern seas near Novas Scotia and under the icebergs of Newfoundland. Ocean currents and the earth’s magnetic field guide their journeys of many thousands of kilometers out and back to nest close to the beaches of their birth.  Caribbean leatherbacks nesting along the coastline between Nicaragua and Colombia are “all considered part of the same genetic stock,” says Didier Chacón.

The range of leatherback sea turtles across the world (courtesy of Dusty Foot Productions)

The range of leatherback sea turtles across the world (courtesy of Dusty Foot Productions)

Caribbean leatherbacks are better off than those of their Pacific Coast relatives, although both populations are falling. Global climate change is changing oceans, shrinking beaches and hitting sea turtles hard.  Perhaps the most ominous impact begins at the beginning—inside the eggs, which are laid in sand by nesting females. The sex of reptiles depends on sand temperatures— cooler sands produce males while warmer sands produce females. Still higher temperatures will kill eggs. With all the impacts, sea turtles cannot afford the level of egg harvesting now rampant in Costa Rica.

Jairo grew up learning to discern certain nights when the soft-shelled giants rose from the sea’s edge, much like their ancestors from the Jurassic age of dinosaurs.

On the dark sand beaches close to his home, he watched the females lumber up past the high tide line, dig out cavernous nests with their hind flippers. He watched them drop clutches of eighty or more eggs covered in slime, a number “packed with ecology and with evolution,” according to Archie Carr. Jairo’s family members continue the conservation movement begun by his grandfather.  His mother leads the hatchery efforts of Asociación ANAI, which supports a local women’s weaving cooperative.

In December 2011, WIDECAST’s Costa Rica director Didier Chacón offered support to Vanessa Lizano’s team at Costa Rica Sanctuary—and sent them Jairo Mora Sandoval, one of his experienced employees. He arrived shortly after a night when Vanessa had to drive her truck in reverse for two miles, as fast as she could.

She had dropped volunteers at the northern part of the beach and was heading south to pick up another group. “A fallen tree was blocking the way. When I got out to move it, two guys with machetes came towards me. So I ran back to the car…” When she got a safe distance away, she called the police.

“I used to tell Jairo ‘this is how we are going to die,’” Vanessa remembers.

Moín Beach is known for drug trafficking — which often goes hand in hand with the illegal trade of sea turtle eggs. Buyers believe the eggs are “natural Viagra,” says Dona Esperanza, an elderly sea turtle activist based in Costa Rica’s west coast beach in Playa Grande. She remembers when that “new idea” seized hold of turtle eggs, which were used for baking breads and pastries (before the “Viagra” market took over). With the drug and turtle egg trades now organized by well-armed traffickers, beaches like Moín have become increasingly dangerous.

Why pursue work in Moin Beach when it was so dangerous, when she received subsequent death threats serious enough to relocate herself and her son to the capital city of San Jose, over 100 miles inland? “Because Moin has magic,” Vanessa declared. “You get stuck in that magic.”

Vanessa Lizano (left) and Jairo Mora (right) measuring the carapace of a nesting leatherback sea turtle.

Vanessa Lizano (left) and Jairo Mora (right) measuring the carapace of a nesting leatherback sea turtle.

And because it was not always so dangerous. Until 2012, when poachers could easily out-compete the conservation teams, they were harmless—even friendly. They smelled of weed and whistled as women volunteers walked by.

Then a few poachers joined Costa Rica Sanctuary’s efforts to build a sea turtle hatchery, sifting through sand to a depth of 5 feet in an area about the size of a tennis court. Guti, one of the poachers, dissolved into tears at his first sighting of newborn hatchlings making their clumsy way to sea. He was finally witnessing lives hatching out of eggs he had been stealing away.

An ex-poacher witnesses leatherback hatchlings for the first time. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

An ex-poacher witnesses leatherback hatchlings for the first time. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

Unlike Guti, most of the hueveros stuck to their trade. There was fierce competition for the eggs—the machetes they carried “for breaking coconuts,” were used for darker purposes.  They enforced a tight system of rules while staking out leatherback eggs.

“If you found a turtle and she had a stick behind her, she was marked by poachers. She was taken,” Carlyn explained. She functioned as the Spanish-to-English translator between the volunteers and Jairo, who knew only a little English.

“We used to do the measurements and tagging after they took all the eggs. It used to frustrate the hell out of Jairo; he absolutely hated it,” Carlyn said.

If the conservationists were lucky enough to tag a turtle first, they took her eggs to the sea turtle hatchery located close to Costa Rica Sanctuary. Between February and July 2012, the leatherback nesting season, the Sanctuary staff and volunteers spent full nights  10  patrolling Moin Beach by truck and on foot. They dressed in dark clothes, wore no mosquito repellent on their hands and worked silently. Leatherbacks are extremely sensitive to light when they first emerge from sea, so no white lights were used while patrolling. “Jairo would get very cross if we didn’t stick to the rules.”

Teams of trained volunteers patrolled the beach signaling each other with red lights, since sea turtles are least sensitive to red. Mostly, the teams worked in the dark.

A female leatherback emerges from the waves (courtesy Dusty Foot Productions).

A female leatherback emerges from the waves (courtesy Dusty Foot Productions).

“You have to do a lot of walking and waiting to see the coming of a turtle out of water,” wrote Archie Carr. Given the challenge of trekking miles across sand, the trick was to be fast enough to stake out a leatherback before anyone else could claim it. In the beginning of the season, poachers outwitted the Sanctuary team. They were quicker. They figured out the significance of the red light signals and used them to confuse the team.

The Sanctuary team persisted.  They grew better at what they were doing, jubilant when they sighted a turtle emerging from the tumbling foam, her sighs echoing those of the sea. They hired 10 poachers to assist and accompany team members. Vanessa paid the poachers a salary, tea, coffee, rice and beans. In exchange, they patrolled the beach and worked with the volunteers.

Vanessa with two of the poachers she hired to work at Costa Rica Sanctuary

Vanessa with two of the poachers she hired to work at Costa Rica Sanctuary

The team felt more secure in the company of the hired poachers—and gained knowledge. “They blow you away with how much they know,” Carlyn told me. “Say a turtle comes out and faces left or right while she is laying eggs. They tell you this is a more mature turtle. They tell you if you walk in the direction she is facing, that is where another turtle will come out. And they are spot on, every time! You’d need to do a study to prove it— but they are always right.”

During the leatherback season, the Sanctuary team averaged a couple of hours of sleep a night. “We were running on adrenalin. You know how beautiful it is, spending nights on the beach. We would find a leatherback and rush for the eggs…Riding back home by about 6 a.m., we were exhausted. If Jairo spotted turtle tracks ahead, he was out and sprinting down the beach, barely giving us a chance to stop the truck!”

Jairo sorting eggs at Costa Rica Sanctuary. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

Jairo sorting eggs at Costa Rica Sanctuary. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

Back at the Sanctuary they dug out new nests for eggs collected the previous night, entered data and took care of sloths, spider monkeys, howler monkeys and other rescued animals. Sometimes they rushed out to rescue animals in the way of a new  13  pipeline. One of the parrots followed Jairo around from task to task, having taken “a liking” to him.

“We would try and force him to take days off,” Carlyn said. On the rare weekend when he did ride the bus home, Jairo would “get off several stops early to walk the beaches, scanning for signs of turtles. And during those weekends he would call asking about the sanctuary…Once he took a day and a half off— and called up, saying he missed it!”

Collaboration with the hired poachers was tenuous. The small hours of April 15, 2012, marked a turning point. “We drove up and saw no one guarding the Sanctuary’s hatchery. My first thought was ‘ah, they all fell asleep.’ But Jairo knew immediately. He jumped out and rushed there.”

The volunteers had been stripped naked and held at gun point. Their hands were tied behind their backs. They were lying face-down in the sand, an omen of future events. “They were terrified,” Carlyn remembers. “One of the women had been molested.” The Sanctuary had been ransacked, over a thousand eggs stolen from the nests.

“The aphrodisiac idea is, of course, a baseless folk belief,” wrote Archie Carr. “It is a deeply rooted one, nevertheless… a greater obstacle to enforcement than the demand for the eggs as food. Tampering with a man’s sex life will make a poacher out of an upright citizen.”

Within days, all the volunteers abandoned the Sanctuary project and Costa Rica. Jairo held back from telling his family about the attack; he knew they would worry. Soon after the attack, they found out through one of his co-workers who returned to Gandoca.

Now the remaining Sanctuary team called on the OIJ (Organismo de Investigación Judicial, a special branch of the police force) to help with beach patrols. They immediately sent eight armed guards.  Moin Beach became a battleground of gunfire by night, the police shooting at poachers, who often shot back. Poachers were arrested; eggs were seized. Despite many successes, it was a terrifying season.

“Even the friendly poachers did not greet us anymore. They were frightened. I used to ask [the police] to please not be so aggressive—or we would be unsafe working without them around,” Carlyn predicted.

A rotating set of OIJ personnel accompanied the Costa Rica Sanctuary team until the end of the 2012 leatherback season. But when the team called upon the OIJ for help in 2013, they were too busy to respond. Alone, Jairo continued to walk the beaches by night, despite warnings from WIDECAST’s Costa Rica office and the Sanctuary staff. “You just try and stop that man from doing what he loves! The turtles were all he cared about. It was in his blood,” Carlyn said.  “I think he felt he was invincible.”

There were no guarantees for safety without police protection. Perhaps Jairo knew the end was nigh. He received several death threats similar to ones Vanessa had received. Unlike her, he ignored them. About 5 weeks before his murder, he made a plea for help—on Facebook. “Tell the police not to be afraid, but to come armed,” he urged.

“You never think it’s going to happen,” Carlyn mused. “I mean, really? You are going to kill someone over eggs?”

Yes, really.

News of the brutal murder burst through Costa Rican news networks and quickly radiated across the world—the BBC, MongaBay, Huffington, The Guardian, ABC and  15 CNN. Dr. Karen Eckert, the executive director of WIDECAST, nominated Jairo for a Disney Conservation Hero Award. The U.S. Embassy publicly condemned the brutality as “senseless” and the Caribbean office of the United Nations Environment Programme offered condolences to his family, as did conservation organizations throughout the world.  Photographs revealing a face full of innocent, child-like enthusiasm were posted all over the internet.

Jairo (right) on the beach with Carlyn (left)

Jairo (right) on the beach with Carlyn (left)

Marine conservation communities worldwide were in shock. Costa Rica is known for its highly organized networks of eco-tourism and here was a clear example of that network gone awry. And the government’s initial reluctance to act seemed like part of a larger silence.

Alfio Piva, the Costa Rican Vice-President, initially called the murder “an accident.” When communities in Costa Rica reacted with outrage, he hastily shifted his focus “”I only meant to recognize that the area where this happened unfortunately has a high murder rate and that there is high risk when working in an area where there is drug trafficking,” he explained. “The work that the young Mora did was admirable, and days ago, I condemned the murder…”

Jairo died alone but he was memorialized by thousands. National vigils were planned in San Carlos and five other Costa Rican cities for June 5, 2013, World Environment Day.

On the eve of the vigils, the OIJ recovered Jairo’s stolen phone and arrested several suspects near Moin and the nearby city, Limon. But Vanessa, who believed she was threatened by the same group who eventually killed Jairo, was not sure if the real murderers were behind bars.

The vigils were cathartic. Friends and friends of friends held up banners until their arms ached; passing cars honked their acknowledgement of signs like “TU COMPANEROS SEGUIREMOS TU EJEMPLO, JAIRO” (WE YOUR COLLEAGUES WILL CONTINUE YOUR EXAMPLE, JAIRO), with the O of his name replaced by a hand-drawn sea turtle. Songs of dedication flowed through the hours. Candlelight cast an eerie light on the future of conservation powered by poorly funded communities with minimal government support.

“Here was someone who had made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Todd Steiner, director of the California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, who has worked on the Pacific Coastline beaches of Costa Rica. Steiner called Jairo “the Chico Mendes of sea turtles,” referring to famous Brazilian rubber tapper who labored to save rainforests managed by local communities, and who was murdered in 1988.

“Jairo’s knowledge was overwhelming,” Carlyn said. “He grew up with it, lived with it. I don’t think he realized what he knew.”

Joining hands with WIDECAST, the Center for Biological Diversity, SEE Turtles, Sea Shepherd, Ocean Futures Society, LivBLUE and other nonprofit  17 organizations, Steiner resolved to begin a “worldwide movement” seeking justice. He began a reward fund to find the killers and a separate memorial fund for Jairo’s family. The reward fund quickly mounted to $56,000 and the memorial fund grew to $10,000. By July 26, 138,000 supporters had signed the petition.

On July 30, exactly two months after the murder, Steiner took the petition to the Costa Rican consulate in Los Angeles, calling on the country’s government to locate and convict the killers. His action echoed in eight countries across the world— United Kingdom, the United States, El Salvador, Ecuador, Germany, Spain, India and Australia. More candlelight vigils and protests were planned across Costa Rica.

Jairo Mora Sandoval. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

Jairo Mora Sandoval. Photograph: Carlyn Samuels

“Jairo would have been glad,” Carlyn declared. “He wanted everyone to know about Moin Beach. And now it is wide open. The world knows.”

Very quietly, the group of poachers who had worked with Costa Rica Sanctuary in 2012 approached Vanessa again. They wanted to help.

“They are saving the eggs and bringing them to me,” Vanessa explained. “I have also given them iceboxes to keep the eggs in their houses. And I am paying them…I can’t give up,” she declared tearfully, “Or Jairo will have died in vain.”

She believes the conservation movement at Moin will work if the poachers are employed. She is seeking to begin an eco-tourism venture at the beach; with ex-poachers leading groups out and their wives making hand-woven bags from recycled plastic. “I know this will take time, but it will happen. Archie Carr also struggled for conservation.”

A little after 9 a.m. on July 20th, 2013, as public support surged, sand in the hatchery at Costa Rica Sanctuary began to buckle. Up popped a steel-grey head no thicker than a thumb. Within minutes, another, a third and a fourth emerged in quick succession. Sibling over sibling, flipper over flipper, 116 hatchlings surfaced en masse. Each was no more than a bell pepper in size, bellies bulging with yolk reserves designed to power their journey to sea with a miniscule version of their parents’ crawl—all flippers forward at the same time. They were equipped with two short rear flippers and two long front flippers whose “wingspan” was at least as long as the hatchling. . They took a pause from the effort of emerging. One wiped the side of its head with a flipper to remove the sandy encrustation around its eye.

Vanessa and her team of volunteers kept the hatchlings until sundown to release “Jairo’s babies,” as she nicknamed them. The hope is they will grow into splendid adults able to return to Moin Beach over a decade from now.  alive.

Perhaps inevitably, Jairo witnessed an arriving leatherback adult on his last night alive.

He encourages the volunteers to stand silently as she selects her nesting spot. They follow his directions. Now sand flies as she shovels it away, creating her body pit while muscling her way into it. Her sighs echo those of the sea.  The vapors of freshly dug sand are mixed with her stronger, heavier scent, more pungent than seaweed. Completing her body pit, she begins creating a chamber for her eggs. Turn by turn, her rear flippers scrape a deep, urn-like vessel out of the moist sand.

She enters a trance-like state driven by reproductive hormones. In one of evolution’s immense acts of do or die, she will appear to remain unaware of danger while laying her eggs. Jairo and the four women inch closer. They watch silently. Front flippers and rear flippers rooted to the spot, she settles into oviposition and begins laying eggs 4, 5, or 6 at a time. Periodically, she takes a break, head raised, gasping for air. Then she drops her head down for another push. The team collects her eggs and transfers them carefully into a plastic bag.

She is done. She lifts her flippers and thumps them down. The team members feel the reverberations coming through sand, up through their feet. She pulls herself forward inches at a time, ungainly on land. She enters the water and glides into the ever-shifting sea.

By midnight a waning half-moon will be up. The double furrow of tracks marking the leatherback’s ascent and descent will look like the marks of tractor tires gone haywire.  As the high tide mounts, waves and shining white surf will erase all prints from the sand, the way seas have for eons. One person will fall from the world short of his natural moment, leaving loved ones behind. His voice will multiply over and over and grow into a movement.


Jairo’s seven killers were arrested by October 2013. But by January 2015, they were all acquitted of the crime for reasons related to “lack of evidence.” Three of the men, including their organizer, went free. Four of them were jailed for previous crimes.

MAYA KHOSLA is the author of Keel Bone (Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize), Heart of the Tearing: Poems (Red Dust) and Web of Water(Golden Gate Parks Conservancy). She has received writing awards from Flyway and Poets & Writers and filming awards from Audubon Society, Patagonia and Save Our Seas Foundation. Her screenwriting work includes narratives for The Turtle Diaries, Shifting Undercurrents and Village of Dust, City of Water, award-winning documentary films with narratives containing poetry. She has taught writing workshops in Stanford University and in Golden Gate Parks.

Copyright 2015 Maya Khosla.


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