By Kevin Alber
(ACAPULCO, Mexico) -- Princess Aliyah Pandolfi Executive Director of the Virginia-based Kashmir World Foundation helps save endangered species, from setting up projects to protect Rhinos in South Africa to Snow Leopards in the Himalayas, and saving the endangered Sea Turtles has been a primary calling that continues to tug.
It's an ongoing involved mission whose campaign deals with governments, major private conservation groups - and the occasional unexpected surprise.
During a December 2016 conservation tour to Central America, Princess Aliyah was excited to learn about Mexico's Playa Hermosa Sea Turtle Rescue Camp, founded 20 years ago by local biologist Monica Vallarino. The Princes and her KwF team took the one hour scenic drive 25 miles from downtown Acapulco along an enchanting coastal road to the facility. She couldn't imagine where the journey would end - at a house situated on the extensive Diamond Beach. "Driving there, my expectations were high," Princess Aliyah said, "The rescue facilities are usually fancy, but we were walking into a house. And not a fancy house, an average size house. Now I'm wondering is this a scam? A tourist trap?" But her concerns quickly grew to excitement as she walked through the humble home's living room and past the bedrooms to the outside.
The Princess thought as she looked around the backyard "I see the beach, some dogs and exotic bunnies, but where are the turtles?" Monica's daughter notices the Princess's concern and brings a few baby sea turtles, and points to the nest hatchery. There are bins and bins of newborns turtles, all in her backyard, and showing Monica's dedication to living, breathing, saving these turtles.
Campo Tortuguera rescue is run completely through volunteers, with the only full time workers being Vallarino's family, including Monica's daughter Michelle who is very proud of her mother and intends to carry on her work. Because of Acapulco's high levels of rain, the nesting season is all year round, and Camp volunteers patrol the 25 kilometers of Playa Diamante's beaches every single night.
The first thing they do is locate the mother sea turtles, who returns 25 years after having been born, to lay and bury her eggs on the same beach. "The sea turtles lay as many as 160 golf ball sized eggs in their nest, and after covering them the mother must be protected as she drags herself back down the beach to the sea," Vallarino explains. "Poachers are everywhere. Without a guard they will take them away."
Vallarino says there are two dangerous problems which have made humans the Sea Turtles biggest predator - the first being the Mexican male belief that eating Sea Turtle eggs will enhance their sexual virility, a false myth. The other is a sad but true fact - the area's growing poverty." The problem in Acapulco now is less tourists, so people need to find other ways to feed their family, and more turtles are being taken for food," she explains, "With their flesh they make stews, extract the oil from its shell, and the skin is used to make bags and wallets." Eggs are sold on the black market to the highest bidder, and one single egg can sell for as much as 25% higher than the daily minimum wage, making the incentive high and the poachers determined and lethal.
"On the beach we encounter armed people with machetes and pistols" Vallarino continued, "It gets very aggressive when they see that we take a nest, but that's my job. The danger is not important. I do it for my care for them and for the love."
Princess Aliyah can relate having faced the same dangers saving Rhinos in Africa. "Because it's related to poaching play safe, so you are less in their face - having a strong motherly instinct you naturally want to protect your offspring. Monica has to be a strong woman to play that role. But I also think not just as a strong woman - you have to be a strong person to go up against those odds."
Vallarino agrees. "We are from Acapulco, and care about all of the life here," she said, "but the Sea Turtles are an especially vulnerable species, and there are places we can't go because the traffickers took over where the turtles arrive."
Among the five native endangered Sea Turtle species including the Golfina and Olive Ridley, the Leatherback sea turtle, which can weigh up to 1100 pounds and measure seven plus feet in length, is Mexico's most threatened. Until the 1980's, Mexico was the Leatherbacks most important nesting ground, with 880 females laying eggs along Mexico's coast. Today that number is below ten.
After safely getting past the poachers, Campo Tortuguero's volunteers collect the eggs, and carefully relocate every single nest they find to a fenced area in Vallarino's beachfront backyard to protect them from human and animal scavengers, where the nests are labeled with projected hatch dates. There they are cared for until they are born, which normally takes 45-55 days.
Every morning, the miracle of life is revealed, as hundreds of baby sea turtles break out of their shells. The hatchlings are placed in a bin in the fresh air so they can develop their sense of smell, and then they are submerged in a pool to develop their swimming abilities. "They are weak but must be placed in the ocean within 24 hours or they lose their natural instinct to swim," Vallarino explained, "Then they are released in large groups into the sea to better their chance of survival.
"When it's high season, which is August, September and October, we have three distinct fenced corrals, and sometimes there are so many eggs we have to place them in other friends camps along the beach," Vallarino said, "In the height of the season you need 15 people working all night long and into the morning, because in the mornings there are between 1000-1500 sea turtles born every day. There are days when we plant 100 nests." In high season, the camp has released as many as 30,000 baby sea turtles over a four month period.
The work is relentless and exhausting, and the Camp is funded primarily through visitor donations, with some additional and needed revenue coming from a delicious and very affordable restaurant right next door. Sadly, very little funding comes from the government, and with only one ATV most of Vallarino's efforts are done the old fashioned way by walking the beaches or by horseback.
This is where Princess Aliyah knew Kashmir World Foundation could make a big difference quickly. "We're going to get Monica the things she needs," Princess Aliyah said, "Besides a patrol ATV, we'll be donating a drone for monitoring the turtle nests, and we're going to educate Monica's group on the newer methods of monitoring that will make it more efficient and safe for her, and really save her time."
Kashmir World Foundation is a world leader in developing drone technology for the use in wildlife conservation, having already tested drones in Kruger National Park, South Africa. KwF educates rangers and conservationists on how to build and use the technology to facilitate things on the ground. Drones are just the right tool to do the job. This is the most technologically savvy product operating in our environment. "The constant challenge is integrating machine seamlessly with nature.
"The way we're developing the technology involves engaging the surrounding environment. We have to deal with different landscapes and factoring in the winds," Princess Aliyah explains. "Sea turtles are the current mission. For the first drone project we chose the Rhino. Kruger was losing 1000 rhinos a year. Our third project is saving the snow leopards that live only in the Himalayas. Again, it's different terrain, not the African bush, or the beaches, but snow and jagged mountains. The technology has to adjust."
Kashmir World Foundation is furthering this technological means of tackling humanity's and nature's intertwined problems through empowering programs like KwF's DaVinci Challenge, which educates and inspires students of all ages to solve real world problems by designing their own solution-use drones, which they then build through a 3D printer.
"If you want to get the next generation involved you have to make it enticing for them," Princess Aliyah said. "For education, what we do is perfect integration. We're teaching kids how to design their own drone, build it, fly it, learn coding for it - all in a few days. It keeps them engaged. Computers are tools that can make our work faster, not just tools for social media."
Back in Acapulco, this is all welcome news because besides poaching, Vallarino is also worried about the danger to the Sea Turtles that comes from the encroaching sprawl of booming condominium construction. "The people in the condominiums understand the need for the turtles to survive, but there is growth and trash on the beach that comes with people." Princess Aliyah adds this is where KwF's drone program can also help by surveying the damage being done in real time. "Drones will help with the erosion issue," she said, "These turtles are coming up the beach 20 meters, if we lose ten meters to developers taking away the land, then what are they going to do?" Vallarino and Princess Aliyah know all too well the grim odds that sea turtles face to survive - out of every 1000 hatchlings born, only one will live to see adulthood.
Volunteers and donations will always remain the backbone of Vallarino's non-profit organization, and there is a special magic that stays with visitors who come to Turtle Camp Playa Hermosa as they are shown all the stages of the rescue operation, including the hundreds of nests, the hatching turtles, and the many bins of newborn babies. They are then taken to the beach, where they can personally release the Golfina, Olive Ridley and Leatherback newborns themselves right onto the sand, and watch in awe as the baby sea turtles energetically head to the water and get their first taste of the surf, and then swim with seemingly effortless purpose out into the sea - a miracle of nature and life that leaves no one unmoved.
As guests walk back through the extensive camp, past all the nests, all the bins of hatchlings, and past Vallarino's exotic birds and fluffy dogs - they will also notice the artistic cacophony of her house's decor, a tropical random weave where everything looks effortlessly in place - a design of faith, a mirror of Vallarino's life. And as they head for the exit, one can't help but register that they are walking through her living room, past her family's bedrooms and bathroom, and out her front door - they have literally been invited inside her home - it doesn't get any more personal than that.
For Princess Aliyah, this is what sets Vallarino's Campo Tortuguero apart from anything she'd ever seen in her extensive conservation work before. "This was so much better than all the places I've been because the other places are out to impress, and this is out of Monica's house," she said, feeling a shared commitment. "My house is my office space for KWF. Here you have this big non-profit and she runs it out of her house like me. I'm thinking I love her - she is running this like we do!"
Marveling at such dedication, Princess Aliyah couldn't be happier. "We never thought we could be part of this cause. It's so important. It's so big," she smiled, "We feel like superheroes."
The Turtle Camp at Playa Hermosa is located approximately 25 miles from downtown Acapulco, about an hour's scenic drive. It is funded primarily through donations, and volunteers are always needed. To donate or volunteer, go to the Camp's website at www.tortuguitas.com.mx, their Facebook page at Amigos del Mar Acapulco, A.C.