Atlantic green turtles haven't been given many breaks over the last few decades. The large marine reptile's numbers seem under attack from every direction: over-active hunting practices, the destruction of land habitats, chemical pollution, ocean debris, accidental fishing, the list goes on. Last week marked another considerable blow with the discovery of 18 trash bags filled with 9,000 stolen turtle eggs in a boat in Saint Laurent, French Guiana. It's troubling news for conservationists as well as anyone concerned with marine turtle species' falling population numbers. Not only does the uncovering display a demand for turtle eggs in the area -- some believe the eggs are an aphrodisiac -- but it also shines light on the possibility that green turtle eggs are still being sold in markets in Suriname and other countries in spite of illegality and the species' protected status.
The cache of eggs was uncovered on February 28th by the French gendarmery, hidden beneath the floorboards of a pirogue on the Maroni River. According to the original France-Guyane story, although the soldiers found no one on or around the boat, it's likely that the eggs were headed for markets around Suriname and it's capital, Paramaribo. There, the eggs fetch a generous price of two euro a piece, says France-Guyane. The bags were handed over to French Guiana's National Office of Hunting and Wildlife but since the eggs are no longer viable after they've been moved from the nest, "they'll be destroyed," says the Gendarmery's Captain Laffargue.
Atlantic green turtles, who make periodic pilgrimages to nest on the shores of French Guiana and Suriname, are listed as an endangered species by the IUCN. Their nesting and foraging grounds in the Caribbean and Antilles have been decimated in recent years and their numbers continue to fall due to bi-catching in fishing nets, egg and meat harvest, and environmental reasons like chemical pollution and the ingestion of plastic bags. The green turtle populations on The Caymen Islands and Bermuda are already extinct, according to a report by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Egg poaching poses one of the biggest problems for the species in French Guiana. The World Wildlife Foundation chapter charged with French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana argues that, "The two biggest threats to marine turtles in the Guianas are the poaching of eggs and nesting females, and incidental bi-catch from near and off-shore fisheries."
The WWF's current estimate of the worldwide population of female adult green turtles falls somewhere around 203,000, but French Guiana's shores also play nesting home to the leatherback turtle, a species in far worse shape than the green. For leatherbacks, the population estimate for the Atlantic is unknown but the Pacific number may be as few as 2,300 adult females, according to the WWF. Atlantic leatherback females seem to almost uniquely choose Gabon, French Guiana, Trinidad and Suriname to nest. If they're sharing nesting grounds with their green cousins in the Guianas, conservationists should cross their fingers that last week's poach represents an anomaly more than an egg hunt norm. Because if the latter is true, a few similar purges of leatherback eggs could force the species into variable extinction in the Caribbean.