Margaret Kruesi’s (Gr’95) affinity for the uncommon goes beyond her day job as a manuscripts librarian at Penn’s Annenberg Rare Books and Manuscript Library. Earlier this year, she spent several days waiting on a hard bench at a park station in Costa Rica just for a glimpse of one of the world’s most ancient animals, the leatherback sea turtle.
Kruesi and her group—which included Professor of Anatomy and Geology Peter Dodson—are worried about the ever-dwindling population of these marine reptiles. Here she shares with the Current her passion for conservation.
Q. Tell me about this trip you took to Costa Rica.
A. I went on Jan. 19 for a week with my longtime friend and colleague, Jim Spotila, who is a professor of environmental science at Drexel University. His primary area of research is leatherback turtles. He’s working to save them from extinction in the Pacific Ocean. The beach where we went in the northwest coast of Costa Rica is the last remaining large nesting beach for these turtles in the Pacific Ocean.
Q. What do these turtles look like?
A. They have a leathery skin on their back, which is hard like what you think turtles have. It’s a very unique ridged back. They date back to the time of the dinosaurs and [even] survived the mass extinction that [dinosaurs did not]. They’re huge—over two yards long.
Q. What was the purpose of the trip?
A. I’m on the board of directors of an organization called the Leatherback Trust that Dr. Spotila founded. The object of the trust is to raise money to support research at this station and to protect the beach from development. The property behind where the turtles nest is privately owned. There’s legislation pending right now to make all of that land behind the beach part of the park.
Q. Was there a reason you went during this particular time?
A. The females come onto the beach to nest between October and late February. Each adult female can nest up to about nine or ten times during that period and they usually nest in a nine day cycle. They’ll come up and dig a nest and lay eggs.
With this research project, each of these turtles that comes up onto the beach is tagged. [The researchers] track when they come back and how many eggs they lay. One of the important things that this project has already been successful with is educating the local community not to poach the eggs. Twenty years ago virtually all of the turtle eggs were poached. They’re seen as aphrodisiacs in the local culture. [The researchers have] involved local people as guides.
Q. But don’t tourists compromise what you’re trying to do?
A. It can, but [there are] some very strict regulations. The local park, which is part of the national park system, regulates which tour groups can come onto the beach, how many people can come on at a time. They don’t use any lights, except little red flashlights, because lights are very disorienting for the turtles. They don’t actually bring the tours onto the beach until the turtle has started to lay her eggs. At that point, she’s kind of in a trance and won’t really be disturbed.
Q. How big is the turtle population?
A. It’s declining very quickly. We saw just one nesting turtle in that week although there was one night when there was five altogether. Twenty years ago there might have been 100 a night. It’s a very severe decline. This was about the 60th individual female turtle for this season. The average about a few years ago was about 200-250 more a year. There’s a real serious concern that they’re nearing extinction mainly because of offshore fishing, industrial fishing. Turtles get caught in nets.
Q. Why should we care about this problem?
A. It’s challenging especially right now [when] everyone is worrying about invasions and terrorism. I think we have a moral imperative to save another species, especially in this case when it’s possible to do it. It’s just greed and neglect. It’s greed for people who want to own beachfront properties and greed in the fishing industry.
If [the turtles] were left alone, they’d live for a long time. They’ve lived for a long time through various pressures. If you protect the beaches—and they have been releasing the hatchlings back into the water—they still can expect that some will survive.
Q. How does this tie in with what you do here at Penn?
A. I talk in my class[es] about how cultural conservation and community development work together. This is an area where folklorists are expanding their work. It’s a way of preserving traditional community ways of life and the environment at the same time. The possibility of bringing these turtles back is in part because of community involvement.
More information about leatherback turtles at www.leatherbacktrust.org.
Originally published on February 27, 2003