"We haven’t seen a lot of evidence that there is a major connection between the illegal trade of turtle products and drug traffickers, though it is possible. The situation really depends on the country, we have seen places where enforcement seems to be working fairly well, such as in Belize and parts of Costa Rica, and other places where there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement like in Nicaragua especially"
Brad Nahill is the Director & Co-founder of SEE Turtles. He has worked in sea turtle conservation, ecotourism, and environmental education for 15 years with organisations including Ocean Conservancy, Rare, Asociacion ANAI (Costa Rica), and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia). He has also consulted for several ecotourism companies and non-profits, including EcoTeach and Costa Rican Adventures. Mr Nahill is a co-author of the Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles, Chair of the Awards Committee of the International Sea Turtle Society, and has authored several book chapters, blogs, and abstracts on turtle conservation and ecotourism, and has presented at major travel conferences and sea turtle symposia. Brad Nahill has a B.S. in Environmental Economics from Penn State University and taught a class on Ecotourism at Mount Hood Community College.
ecoclub.com: SEE Turtles, which you founded, prides itself in being the world's first effort to protect marine turtles specifically through ecotourism. How did you come up with this idea and how ready were tax authorities, as well as fellow conservationists, to treat your pioneering operation model fairly?
Brad Nahill: Our co-founder Wallace J. Nichols originally came up with the idea while working on turtle conservation with fishermen in Baja California Sur, Mexico. The idea was to try to use tourism as an alternative to fishing since many turtles were being caught in the fishing gear and drowning. I had a similar experience in Costa Rica where ecotourism was being used to support conservation efforts there. When we started SEE Turtles, we were part of Ocean Conservancy, which is a policy organisation that at the time was only focused on work in the US, so it was a challenge to convince some of our colleagues that tourism could be used as a conservation tool. We eventually ended up moving the organisation to The Ocean Foundation, which was a better fit and had experience working with conservation projects that also involve tourism. As far as tax authorities, that was never an issue since non-profits are allowed to earn income as long as profits are reinvested into programs.
ecoclub.com: Do you find it relevant or necessary to quantify your goals, for example, to measure SEE Turtles' conservation effectiveness per dollar earned through ecotourism compared to state organisations and more mainstream environmental NGOs?
Brad Nahill: I think any organisation needs to measure effectiveness to convince government authorities and donors that their work is worth supporting. We put a focus on concrete goals for our programs, whether it is the amount per trip that goes to benefit conservation or local communities, the number of turtle hatchlings saved, or the number of students reached.
ecoclub.com: What do you consider as your main achievements so far?
Brad Nahill: We have a few things that we have accomplished that we are proud of. Our Billion Baby Turtle program, which raises funds for important nesting beach programs, should pass 1 million hatchlings saved at more than 10 programs around Latin America this year. We also hope to pass $1 million in benefits for turtle conservation and local communities through our tours this year as well. Our teacher workshops helped to train more than 100 teachers in 3 countries to incorporate turtle activities into their curriculum and our educational program has reached more than 10,000 students.
ecoclub.com: These are impressive numbers! Please clarify what exactly 'hatchlings saved' means - are these hatchlings saved from egg poachers or also from natural threats (birds, crabs, racoons, foxes, fish). Is this a guesstimate or do you keep detailed datasheets, do you tag or otherwise remotely monitor hatchlings?
Brad Nahill: These are hatchlings saved from both poachers and predators (but primarily poachers). We track the number of hatchlings saved based on estimates provided by partners when they apply for funds. They all keep detailed data on hatchlings released and then provide reports to us after the nesting seasons are complete.
ecoclub.com: Would you also please provide more details about the $1 million in benefits through your tours, as it is very important and inspiring for our readers to see that Ecotourism really delivers, despite the views of assorted maximalists and cynics”
Brad Nahill: The nearly $1 million in benefits is a combination of funds from tours spent directly at conservation programs, donations provided from the profits raised through the tours, money spent in businesses near the turtle sites (hotels, restaurants, guides, and souvenir shops primarily), and the in-kind value of the volunteer work provided by travelers.
ecoclub.com: Pacifist and eco-friendly Costa Rica is globally recognised as the cradle of Ecotourism yet, tourism income has not stopped egg poaching or the sale of hawksbill products. According to worrying media reports, there is also a possible linkup between the drug trade and violent sea turtle poaching along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, tragically illustrated by the murder of Jairo Mora Sandoval, a marine turtle conservationist, in 2013. Based on your experience operating turtle volunteer vacations in Costa Rica, how safe is it today for turtle volunteers, and what relevant actions would you like to see from the local authorities?
Brad Nahill: I don’t think anyone expects ecotourism alone to end the trade in turtle eggs or shells by itself. It will take a combination of enforcement by government agencies and efforts by conservation organisations and ecotourism can support both of those things. Regarding the safety of volunteers, most places in the country where there are volunteer programs are safe. The beach where Jairo worked was well-known as a place where drugs were entering the country, which isn’t the case on most other beaches, and he was outspoken about the lack of police support for keeping the beach safe. His loss was a huge tragedy for the sea turtle community and he worked for one of our partners, but that is not a typical situation for the country. That said, the government of Costa Rica can and should do a much better job of enforcing their laws. Most beaches are only patrolled by private organisations with little support from the Coast Guard or Ministry of the Environment.
ecoclub.com: Based on your recent findings, there is some progress in combating illegal trafficking in sea turtles and the sale of their products yet there is still a long way to go. Based on your observations, why are governments unwilling to impose the law? Are they afraid that the narco-mafias involved in the turtle trade will engage in 'worse' activities?
Brad Nahill: We haven’t seen a lot of evidence that there is a major connection between the illegal trade of turtle products and drug traffickers, though it is possible. The situation really depends on the country, we have seen places where enforcement seems to be working fairly well, such as in Belize and parts of Costa Rica, and other places where there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement like in Nicaragua especially. The agencies in charge of enforcement in this region have a lot of things on their plate and are often understaffed and underfunded, so these kinds of things can drop to the bottom of the list. This is the primary reason we are focusing on reducing demand for turtleshell products with our Too Rare To Wear program.
ecoclub.com: With your 'Too Rare to Wear' project you are currently campaigning specifically against the purchase of souvenirs and other items made from hawksbill turtle shells. How big a problem is this compared to other threats facing turtles, such as poaching for egg consumption, and how exactly do you go about reducing supply as well as demand from domestic and international tourists? Assumed there can be a stick (detailed checks and heavy fines at customs worldwide), can there be an economic 'carrot', such as turning poachers into guides, as has happened with other endangered species?
Brad Nahill: The turtleshell trade is a major threat specifically to hawksbills, which are one of two sea turtle species that are critically endangered. To give you an idea of how big a threat it is, there are an estimated 15,000 adult females right now and an estimated 2 million shells were exported to Japan over a 50 year period until the 1990’s when the legal trade was finally ended. Our focus is primarily on demand, by educating travellers that these products come from endangered species and are illegal to bring home with them. We have developed guides, infographics, and videos and are working with tourism companies to share them with travellers. Where there are government agencies that are able to help, we will certainly work with them to do things like training agents on how to recognise the products. In terms of using tourism to offer alternatives to the hunters who catch the turtles, I’m not sure if that is possible but we are looking into ways to encourage the use of other types of materials for souvenirs in place of turtleshell.
ecoclub.com: Compared to the lethal threats that turtles face, some prefer to focus on tourism's (and turtle tourism's!) impact on turtles! Are they missing the forest for the tree?
Brad Nahill: For the book, we focused on places where there are existing programs that people can participate with or good infrastructure and monitoring to reduce impacts. And the book, in reality, is not reaching large audiences, so we don’t think that will be an issue.
ecoclub.com: Despite the best efforts of climate deniers in high places, more and more eco-friendly citizens, professionals and businesses worldwide are seriously concerned about Climate Change. But do you find it easier to sensitise travellers, volunteers and donors to the plight of just one, yet very important for the ecosystem, species, or is there more competition these days?
Brad Nahill: I think there is more competition for donors right now, but not just because of climate change. The US is in a political crisis and people that might normally donate to a wildlife conservation effort now see many problems to support that have become more urgent such as human rights. But we think that those who interact with these amazing animals understand the importance of protecting them.
ecoclub.com: As a trained environmental economist, do you believe that trying to measure the economic value of an endangered species as a tourist attraction makes sense? Is it possible that the economic value (both for poachers, and for tourists) goes up the more endangered a species is, thus as far as the economy is concerned it pays to keep an animal endangered (but certainly not extinct)? And even if the 'tourism value' of wildlife was found to be smaller that the 'poached value' (consider the not so hypothetical situation where there is a travel directive against visiting a specific country), would that be a justification to kill them?
Brad Nahill: I think measuring the economic impact of tourism around an endangered species is extremely important. When governments and businesses make decisions, the more that the value of something like keeping an endangered species alive can be quantified, the more likely responsible decisions will be made. I don’t think an animal’s value to tourism rises the more endangered it becomes though, I think people make their decisions based more on the charisma of the animal than its status. There have been studies that show that sea turtles alive are worth much more than dead ones since benefits can last for years while a poached animal has value only once. But in general, the people that are poaching are not using economic studies to base their decisions, they are based on things like poverty level, availability, and risk of getting in trouble.
ecoclub.com: We thank you and wish you every success with protecting these amazing creatures through your ecotourism and voluntourism programmes.