In Mexico's Magdalena Bay in Baja California, a Trans Am pulls into a village courtyard, parking behind an underground restaurant. When the trunk is opened, it's full of green turtles flipped on their backs, alive and kicking. Jeffrey Brown, an American photojournalist, starts taking pictures. Alongside him is J. Wallace Nichols, biologist with the California Academy of Sciences who, in 1998, co-founded Grupo Tortuguero ("Turtle Group") in hopes of recovering the five endangered species of Eastern Pacific Sea Turtles—hawksbills, loggerheads, leatherbacks, olive ridleys and green turtles—that forage and nest along Baja peninsula. The two have negotiated their way into this "speakeasy" underworld.
A notorious poacher known only as "Lobo" takes the reptiles from the trunk. "He proceeded to lay the turtles out and hit each one over the head with a two-by-four then butchered them up," recalls Brown, who kept the camera snapping to document the continued poaching and over-consumption of sea turtles in Mexico. After the slaughter "the old grandma" in the restaurant kitchen made turtle soup for waiting customers.
This practice remains "business as usual" in such makeshift restaurants throughout Baja, even though sea turtle hunting and consumption has been banned since 1990.
"I don't see too many turtles anymore," says Alvaro Romero, a 78-year-old fisherman who has lived in Loreto all his life. He stopped fishing for turtles long ago because he didn't want to see them disappear. "Always kill, kill, killing of the turtles," says Romero who nowadays gives eco-tours of Coronado Island on his small boat, known as a panga. He says that poachers still hunt turtles at night around neighboring Carmen Island. They hunt underwater with flashlights, using a hookah or free diving. A swimming turtle is grabbed by the top edge of its shell and forced to surface where another poacher, waiting in a panga, pulls it aboard by its flippers. The animals can weigh over 200 pounds. The turtles are butchered for consumption locally or trafficked north, fresh, for buyers in Ensenada and Tijuana who pay about $500 per turtle.
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