Kino Bay, Sonora, Mexico: Standing at the bow of the boat, Ramon Lopez – an elder Seri man – observes the horizon, the color of the sea, the smells, and the islands, just as his ancestors have for a millennium. The boat travels through schools of fish, flocks of pelicans, mangrove estuaries, and an endless aqua-green sea punctuated only by immense mountains on the horizon. It’s here, on the insultingly named Sea of Cortez that an indigenous community of Seri people brings traditional scientific knowledge to bear in the restoration of their most sacred relative, the sea turtle.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of society, a scantily clad model spreads a complementary message – urging Mexicans to protect the turtles and their eggs.
Pelicans and osprey swoop down to catch their morning meal. Ramon sings the song to the turtles, bringing them in. The Seri or Comcaac people have a creation story that links them to many other indigenous people of the North – when after the Great Flood, the turtle went to the bottom of the water and brought up earth to make the land new again. These same people, with traditional ecological knowledge gained from thousands of years on the Sea of Cortez, are today an important part of the effort to restore the sea turtles. In that process, they are strengthening their community.
Hunted originally for their meat, then for their shells, sea turtles have become increasingly endangered as men who desire greater sexual prowess purchase turtle eggs as a sexual stimulant and aphrodisiac.
Beaches in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guerrero are nesting habitats for seven of the world’s eight sea turtle species, and all of the turtles are in danger of extinction. By banning the hunting, sale and consumption of turtle eggs and by-products in 1990, the Mexican government launched an extensive campaign to protect sea turtles, although turtle habitat remains endangered. It’s estimated that 90 percent of Mexican sea turtle nesting habitat has been destroyed for beachside development like condominiums and hotels, largely for North Americans.
The drive to “get it up,” however, continues to devastate the turtle population. Some 80 sea turtles were bludgeoned and butchered alive in one single massacre in August on the Guerrero coast. As many as 100 eggs can be removed from a dead female. On another stretch of Guerrero’s coast near Petatlán, at least 100,000 eggs have disappeared this nesting season.
A new, highly visible and controversial campaign to challenge sea turtle eggs as an aphrodisiac is being led by an internationally known Argentinian model, Dorismar, and members of the mega-popular Norteño group Los Tigres del Norte, joined by a multitude of environmental organizations, including Wildcoast and Grupo de los Cien. Sporting a “come hither” look, buxom and scantily clad, Dorismar proclaims “¡Mi hombre no necesita comer huevos de tortuga!” – “My man doesn’t need turtle eggs.” The ad explains that “Los huevos de tortuga marina no son afrodisiacos” – “Sea turtle eggs are not aphrodisiacs.” Echoing those sentiments, one anonymous person who partook of the eggs in the 1960s remembers, “They sort of tasted like salty snot, really disgusting… I never did get to see if they worked, I couldn’t get them down my throat.”
Drawing fire from groups such as the National Women’s Institute of Mexico, which called the ads degrading to women, the campaign has drawn an immense amount of attention. National and international environmental organizations hope that attention will help the turtles recover.
The Seri communities of Punta Chueca and Desemboque del Sur have a different approach. In a small bay near their communities, they’ve observed “teenaged turtles” come to eat, grazing on a highly nutritious underwater sea grass. This past year, the Seri tagged hundreds of turtles and tracked others in an effort to nurture their restoration. For the first time in many years, seven green turtles came to Seri territory to nest.
Gabriel Hoeffer, a 21-year-old Seri sporting denim and a bandana, talks about finding turtles tagged a thousand miles away. “It’s important that our traditional knowledge can help restore the turtles: They’re a very sacred animal to us.”
“The older turtles swim in the currents, that’s how they travel so many thousands of miles. It’s like a highway in the ocean,” Ramon explains.
Gabriel and other Seri youth have formed organizations to work to restore the Seri’s environment, culture and economy. The Seri hope to not only continue their sea- and Sonoran-desert-based economy, which provides up to 70 percent of their food according to Gabriel’s estimates, but also to provide some cash for their economy through eco-tourism, and sale of some of their products through national and international fair trade and gourmet markets. The San Francisco Bay area-based Christensen Fund has supported a number of these initiatives. Christensen Fund Program Officer Enrique Salmon considers the Seri projects to be a critical example of working to restore both ecosystems and cultures. “On a large landscape scale the Seri maintain a vast and critical library of Sonoran Desert and Sea turtle ecological knowledge accessible only in Seri origin stories and songs,” says Salmon. “This is why is important to preserve, in situ, both the biological and cultural diversity of the region.” Elsewhere, Gary Nabhan, at Northern Arizona University’s Center for Sustainable Environments, is assisting in the marketing efforts and ecotourism support for the Seri.
Federal officials and environmentalists placed the Dorismar ads on billboards near Mexico City and in nesting states including Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guerrero. Urging people to report illegal trade in the species to the Federal Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa) at the toll-free 01-800-PROFEPA, the ad campaign will continue to draw attention and criticism.
For their part, the Seri plan to continue to sing for the turtles and take care of their ecosystem – which today faces threats from potential tidal energy-generating plants and shrimp aquaculture. On the Sea of Cortez, perhaps more aptly named the Seri or Comcaac Sea, a 200-million-year-old relative might today have a chance of staying around for another millennium. That’s also thanks to a fashion model, Viagra, education, and hopefully a few other options for securing potency for future generations of men.
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