Thousands of leatherback turtle eggs and hatchlings have been crushed by heavy machinery along a Trinidad beach widely regarded as the world's densest nesting area for the biggest of all living sea turtles, conservationists said Monday.
Government work crews with bulldozers were redirecting the Grand Riviere, a shifting river that was threatening a hotel where tourists from around the globe watch the huge endangered turtles lay their eggs. But several conservationists who monitor turtle populations say the crews botched the job, digging up an unnecessarily large swath of the important nesting beach in the tiny coastal town on Trinidad's northern shore.
Sherwin Reyz, a member of the Grand Riviere Environmental Organization, estimated that as many as 20,000 eggs were crushed or consumed by the scores of vultures and stray dogs that descended upon the narrow strip of beach to eat the remains after the Saturday operation by the Ministry of Works.
"They had a very good meal. I was near tears," said Reyz, who helped save hundreds of hatchlings that were uninjured when they were dredged up by the heavy machinery. "It was a disgusting mess."
Leatherbacks, which can grow to more than 7 feet long, can weigh a ton and live to 100 years, will return to lay their eggs on the beach of their birth. The nesting ground of Grand Riviere is so popular with the globally endangered species that nest-digging females sometimes accidentally dig up others' eggs.
Marydele Donnelly, director of international policy for the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy, said avoidable losses of thousands of eggs and hatchlings is always a cause for concern but "this one event will not change the course of leatherback conservation in the Caribbean."
The hotelier who had been pressing Trinidad's government for months to redirect the Grand Riviere was also shocked and dismayed by the end result. The foundation of the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel had been increasingly threatened by the shifting river and numerous calls did not result in action until the weekend.
"For some reason they dug up the far end of the beach, absolutely encroaching into the good nesting areas. This could have been avoided with a much wiser approach. But it was done too late and it was done in the wrong way," said Italian hotelier Piero Guerrini.
Phone calls to the cell phones of Trinidad's ministers of public works and tourism rang unanswered Monday.
Guerrini said problems with the river shifting west toward the hotel as the waterway empties into the sea were hardly new, but previous administrations handled the matter differently.
"Before, the authorities were much quicker, much more responsive and also concerned about the turtle nesting areas," he said by phone on Monday. "This time, there seemed to be no concern."
Guerrini said his hotel was full of tourists who had come to Trinidad to see the tiny leatherback hatchlings climb out of their sandy nests and head for the surf, trying to reach deep waters where they are safe from most predators.
Instead, the tourists saw injured hatchlings dying in front of their eyes as bulldozers shifted the mouth of the river. "This really put a lot of bad images in people's minds," Guerrini said.
Marc de Verteuil, of the Papa Bois Conservation organization, said the river had already eroded a lot of the dense nesting areas on the beach before the weekend, but the government work crews made a bad situation worse.
"Their equipment was basically crushing a much, much larger part of the beach than made sense. It looked like a bit of a panic reaction and they didn't follow procedure," he said Monday. "It's a failure of governance."
De Verteuil said he believes that natural oceanic movements will restore the beach after a few months. But he and other conservationists said they could not confidently gauge how the loss of so many eggs and hatchlings could affect the region's leatherback population.
Leatherbacks lay about 85 eggs at a time, but less than 1 percent survive to adulthood.
For years, successful conservation efforts have benefited leatherbacks in Trinidad, which outlawed the slaughter of the sea turtles in 1966. A growing number of turtle advocates have helped protect the adult nesting females and traditional nesting grounds, which are an attraction for tourists in the twin-island Caribbean republic off Venezuela's coast.
"It's too bad that the government isn't as aware of the need to protect its natural resources as many of its citizens are," Donnelly said from Ellicott City, Maryland.