Marine turtles are imperiled and Mexico's supreme wrestling star, El Hijo del Santo ("Son of the Saint"), is fighting on their behalf. A media magnet, he is using his influence to promote a campaign against eating sea turtles, a massive effort designed to persuade people in Mexico to protect rather than eat the turtles that visit their shores each year to spawn.
Populations of sea turtles have undergone a steep decline in the past 50 years, even though they are protected by the Mexican government and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Hijo del Santo has joined forces with WiLDCOAST, a California- and Mexico-based conservation group that works to protect the coastal ecosystems and wildlife in California and Latin America. Pumping up the public about environmental issues has not been easy, but WiLDCOAST, operating on a modest $800,000 annual budget, has managed to snag the attention of millions by tapping into popular culture.
Their secret: celebrity spokespeople, including Mexican soccer stars Jorge Campos and Francisco "Kikin" Fonseca, popular bands Mana and Los Tigres del Norte, Argentinean model Dorismar, and, now, legendary wrestler Hijo del Santo.
The campaign has two goals: discouraging the consumption of turtle meat and, more recently, turtle eggs as well. Eating caquama, or turtle meat, is a tradition in some parts of Mexico that is increasingly losing its allure, says Fay Crevoshay, WiLDCOAST's spokesperson. The turtle meat campaign began in 2001 and by 2005, she says, "we had the biggest population in 20 years of turtles laying eggs in Oaxaca's La Escobilla Beach."
The egg campaign was initiated two years ago, but made a big splash thanks to celeb spokesperson Dorismar. The model appeared in print ads wearing a slinky black bikini alongside baby turtles scurrying across a beach. "My man doesn't need sea turtle eggs, because he knows they don't make him more potent," reads the ad's caption. A common misconception is that sea turtle eggs have aphrodisiac power, but they are simply rich in protein, explains Aida Navarro, WiLDCOAST's wildlife conservation program manager.
"It's really hard to keep track of the number of eggs eaten," Navarro says, because they are sold on the black market (Mexican law bars consumption of both turtle eggs and meat) but, she notes, "there is definitely more awareness."
"Certainly environmental education and awareness campaigns like this one are important to making changes in behaviors," says Rebecca Lewison, assistant professor of ecology at San Diego State University. "Unfortunately, turtle eggs are harvested throughout Mexico, though it's virtually impossible to estimate how many."
Although WiLDCOAST's campaign has been successful in limiting the harvesting of sea turtles and their eggs, environmentalists point out that there are other risks to the turtle population as well. "A critical point to recognize is that the turtle egg harvest is only one of many threats sea turtles face in Mexico," Lewison notes. "Direct and indirect harvest of adult turtles [via gear entanglement] may be driving many observed declines."