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Baby Turtle Study Fuels Park Debate

ACCUSATIONS that baby turtles were killed duringscientific experiments in Las Baulas NationalMarine Park have added fuel to an already tense debateabout the purpose of the park, which stretches morethan four kilometers on the northern Pacific coast.During the experiments, scientists from DrexelUniversity in the U.S. city of Philadelphia tested andobserved baby leatherback turtles as they were injectedwith salt load and neurochemicals like adrenaline andmethacholine, according to a scientific paper publishedin The Journal of Experimental Biology and based onthe experiments. The turtles were then killed by chillingand freezing techniques, the paper reports.Although the paper was published in 2002, its con tents have only recently come to the attentionof local environmentalists and scientists.They claim the experiments are furtherproof the Ministry of Environment andEnergy (MINAE), which approved theresearch, is failing in its efforts to protectthe dwindling population of leatherbackturtles, particularly in Las Baulas.However, James Spotila, a professor inDrexel’s Department of Bioscience andone of the authors of the experiment, toldThe Tico Times this week that no turtleswere sacrificed in the experiment. Thepublished statement that hatchlings werekilled was the result of an editorial mistake,he said in an e-mail.“In checking our data books we sawthat (it) was not true. It was an error,”wrote Spotila, who has been doing biologyand conservation research at Las Baulassince 1989.“In the past, and especially over the lasttwo years, my colleagues, my students andI have been the object of a serious campaignof slander and intimidation that wehave traced back to some of the developersat Playa Grande (the largest beach in LasBaulas),” Spotila continued.Environment Minister Carlos ManuelRodríguez agrees. He claims the uproarover the experiments is only a smokescreento thwart ministry efforts to expropriateprivate property within the nationalpark, where luxury homes border one ofthe world’s most important leatherbacknesting beaches.“THEY always say there is value in scientificresearch; but in the case ofleatherbacks (baulas in Spanish), we alreadyknow so much,” said Freddy Pacheco, a professorat Universidad Nacional’s (UNA)School of Biological Sciences.“Of course we don’t know everything,but if only some 50 leatherbacks are comingto this beach a year, it makes no senseto sacrifice a single baby in this kind ofresearch,” he continued, adding that theresearchers from Drexel University couldand should face penal charges.Spotila is well aware that theleatherback population is dwindling.“The Las Baulas (National Park leatherback)population is in a catastrophic declineand immediate and drastic action is needed tosave it from extinction,” he wrote in 1998.According to scientists, during the1988-1989 nesting season 1,367 femalesentered the park. In the 2004-2005 nestingseason, only 48 females entered the park(TT, April 22).The goal of Spotila’s controversial studywas to learn about the salt and water balanceof leatherback hatchlings, about which nothingwas known at the time of the experiment,according to the published paper.Such information is valuable in understandingbaby leatherbacks’ ability toemerge from their nests, make the longcrawl to the ocean and survive, the papersaid.SPOTILA said he was involved in anexperiment in the mid-1990s in whichsome hatchlings were sacrificed. Theexperiment studied whether temperaturedetermined the sex of hatchlings at LasBaulas and was “critical to our understandingof leatherback biology and todeveloping an understanding of the effectof climate change on leatherback sexratios,” he told The Tico Times.According to the biologist, all the proceduresused in all the experiments he hasbeen involved in have been “approved bythe appropriate animal care committees atour universities.”However, in response to an e-mailUNA’s Pacheco sent last week to Drexler’sInstitutional Animal Care and UseCommittee requesting their attention in thematter, the university’s Vice-Provost forResearch Compliance, Sreekant Murthy,Ph.D, said the issue is “very serious.”He told Pacheco Wednesday that thecommittee is in the process of launching “afull inquiry into the research protocoldescribed in the 2002 paper.”MINISTER Rodríguez maintains thatthe fuss over research that took place morethan three years ago is an effort to confusethe public about the real issue now at hand– how Las Baulas National Marine Parkshould be protected.“This is a misinformation campaign…bypeople who oppose MINAE expropriatingproperties inside the national park,” he said.Since Las Baulas was formed 10 yearsago, MINAE has not expropriated one property;the park remains 100% in privatehands, the minister said.MINAE recently started the expropriationprocess on five properties. It seeks toreturn the lots to their natural state in orderto reduce human impact on turtles.But for Pacheco, MINAE hasn’t actedsoon enough for expropriation to be worththe $100 million he says it will cost.Rodríguez puts the cost much lower. Hesays he will not pay people the market valueof their property, particularly those who arepaying property taxes on values much lowerthan the market value. He adds that many ofthe property owners in the area knew theland belonged to a national park when theypurchased the property.Donations of approximately $600,000have been collected to make the expropriations.Rodríguez said next year’s budgetcould include additional government fundsfor the effort.In addition, a moratorium on constructionwithin the park has been declared,stemming from a lawsuit against MINAEfiled last April by three environmentalgroups demanding the halt to building.Park officials say this will help particularlyin the only area of the park whereleatherbacks still nest. Few homes orhotels line the beach there, compared tothe rest of the park.PACHECO says expropriations andmoratoriums are not necessary or appropriate.Instead, he promotes “low-density”sustainable development, including heightand light restrictions that will not affectnesting beaches.“The landowners are willing to cooperateand work with the low-density plan,but every time the government comes inwith threats of expropriation it createsconflict,” he said.Furthermore, debate exists aboutwhether any of the property MINAE saysis part of the park is in fact within nationalpark boundaries. Discrepancies in how thelaw creating the park was written have createdthe confusion (TT, April 22).Pacheco added that research shows thetragic decline of the leatherback populationhas happened at sea, in the hands of long lineand net fishermen.“It’s not that I’m for privatization,”Pacheco explained. “But even if we protect100% of the nesting beaches, theleatherback will still become extinct ifsomething isn’t done in the water. Whywould we make such a huge investment toprotect this land… if in the end theleatherbacks don’t come?”But Spotila holds a different view.While turtle-egg poaching and fishing havebeen problems, “now development is thegreatest threat to the turtles,” he said.


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