A massive slaughter of endangered sea turtles by Mexican fishermen has aroused protests from environmentalists and put the Mexican government on the defensive. Having overcome predators, climatic changes and other hazards for 150-million years, sea turtles are among the few survivors from the age of the dinosaurs. But now, environmentalists say, one of the world's oldest animals risks being snuffed out by the greatest predator of all: man.
Not only are tens of thousands of sea turtles butchered annually for their skins in Mexico, but the eggs they lay on this country's Pacific Coast beaches are gathered up by the millions to be sold for their supposed aphrodisiac properties.
The biggest market for the skins is Japan, which turns them into shoes, purses, wallets and other accessories. Described by environmentalists as the world's leading consumer of turtle products, Japan also buys from Mexico the illegally collected shell of the rare Hawksbill turtle for manufacture into articles ranging from tortoise-shell glasses to decorative combs.
Mexican environmentalists say the trade here is controlled by powerful interests that they liken to mafias. And contrary to the Mexican government's claim that the turtles are an important food source, they say that tons of turtle meat stored in a state-operated processing plant have gone unsold.
"The money is in the skins, not the meat," an American critic said. "They can't even get rid of the meat they have stored."
According to the Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based ecological group, "the present slaughter is the largest killing of an endangered species anywhere in the world."
When President Carlos Salinas de Gortari visited London last month during a European tour, environmentalists there protested the killing of the ancient animals. Earlier this month, about 75 protesters, some wearing sea-turtle costumes, demonstrated outside the Mexican consulate in San Francisco.
Consul General Enrique Loaeza mollified them by announcing that Mexico has agreed to sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, which bans commerce in threatened fauna and flora.
Loaeza also said Mexico would ban the killing of all sea turtles by 1992, abolishing a "quota" that currently allows up to 20,000 of one species, the Olive Ridley, to be butchered annually in a government-approved slaughterhouse.
Mexican environmentalists warn, however, that 1992 may be too late to save the turtles. In any case, they say, the quota is routinely exceeded at the seaside slaughterhouse in Oaxaca state, and thousands more are killed by illegal "pirate" operations that pay bribes to the Mexican government, navy and marine officials.
According to a confidential document from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "the legal quota is used as a cover to ship excessive numbers of skins out of Mexico." Ending it would eliminate any "legal excuse" for the trade and "would prevent Japan from importing Mexican skins," the document said.
Compounding the impact on the species, almost all of the sea turtles killed are adult females. Seven endangered species of sea turtle nest on Mexican beaches. But only the rarest, the Kemp's Ridley, which roams the Gulf of Mexico, is adequately protected under a joint U.S.-Mexican program.