The Seri, sea turtles and cleavage


Standing at the bow of the boat, Ramon Lopez, an elder Seri man, watches
the horizon, the color of the sea and the islands, just as his ancestors
have for a millennium. The boat travels through schools of fish, flocks of
pelicans, mangrove estuaries and an endless aqua green sea punctuated only
by immense mountains on the ocean and land's horizon. It's on the poorly
named "Sea of Cortez" that an indigenous community of Seri people brings
traditional scientific knowledge to bear in the restoration of their most
sacred relative -- the sea turtle. At the opposite end of the social
spectrum, a scantily clad model urges the same message: Protect the turtles
and the turtle eggs.

As pelicans and osprey swoop down to catch their morning meal, Ramon sings
a song to the turtles, bringing them in. The Seri, or Comcaac, people have
a creation story that links them to many other indigenous peoples of the
North -- when after a great flood, the turtle went to the bottom of the
water and brought up earth to make the land new again. These same people,
who possess traditional ecological knowledge of thousands of years on the
Gulf of California, are today an important part of work to restore the sea
turtles and, in that process, strengthen their own community.

Hunted originally for meat, then shells, sea turtles have become
increasingly endangered as men -- apparently in need of more sexual prowess
-- purchase turtle eggs as a sexual stimulant and aphrodisiac.

Beaches in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero are
nesting habitats for seven of the world's eight sea turtle species, and all
of them are in danger of extinction. Banning the hunting, sale and
consumption of turtle eggs and by-products in 1990, the Mexican government
has launched an extensive campaign to protect sea turtles, although turtle
habitat remains endangered. An estimated 90 percent of their nesting
habitat has been destroyed for beach-side development like condominiums and
hotels, largely for North Americans.

The drive to "get it up," however, continues to decimate the turtle
population. Some 80 sea turtles were bludgeoned and butchered alive in one
single massacre this August on the Guerrero coast. As many as 100 eggs can
be removed from a dead female. On another stretch of Guerrero's coast near
Petatl?n, at least 100,000 eggs have disappeared this nesting season.

A new, highly visible and controversial campaign to challenge sea turtle
eggs as aphrodisiac is being led by an internationally known Argentinian
model, Dorismar, and members of the mega-popular norteno group Los Tigres
del Norte, joined by a multitude of environmental organizations. Sporting
that "come hither" look so loved by men, buxom and scantily clad Dorismar,
also known as Dorita, proclaims "My man doesn't need turtle eggs" along
with the ad's explanation: "Sea turtle eggs DO NOT increase sexual
potency!" Echoing those sentiments, one anonymous partaker of the '60s
remembered, "They sort of tasted like salty snot -- really disgusting,"
adding, "I never did get to see if they worked; I couldn't get them down my

Drawing fire from groups like the National Women's Institute of Mexico,
which called the ad degrading to women, the campaign has drawn an immense
amount of attention. That attention, national and international
environmental organizations hope, will help the turtles recover.

Far from the madding crowd of cleavage and sexual marketing, the Seri
communities of Punta Chueca and Desemboque del Sur have a different
approach. In a small bay near their communities they've observed "teenaged
turtles" come to eat, grazing on a highly nutritious underwater sea grass.
This past year, the Seri tagged hundreds of turtles and tracked others in
an effort to nurture their restoration. For the first time in many years,
seven green turtles came to Seri territory to nest.

Gabriel Hoeffer, a 21-year-old Seri sporting denim and a bandana, talked
about finding turtles tagged 1,000 miles away. "It's important that our
traditional knowledge can help restore the turtles -- they're a very sacred
animal to us," she said.

Ramon explained: "Gabriel and other Seri youth have formed other
associations to work in restoration of Seri environments, culture and
economy. The older turtles swim in the currents. That's how they travel so
many thousands of miles. It's like a highway in the ocean."

The Seri hope to not only continue their sea- and Sonoran Desert-based
economy, which provides up to 70 percent of their foods, according to
Gabriel's estimates. They also hope to provide some cash for their economy
through eco-tourism and sale of some of their products through national and
international fair trade and gourmet markets. The Christenson Fund, a Bay
Area-based foundation, has supported a number of these initiatives.
Christensen Fund Program Officer Enrique Salmon considers the Seri projects
a critical example of work to restore both ecosystems and cultures.

"On a large landscape scale, the Seri maintain a vast and critical library
of Sonoran Desert and sea turtle ecological knowledge accessible only in
Seri origin stories and songs," he said. "This is why it is important to
preserve, in situ, both the biological and cultural diversity of the

Elsewhere, Gary Nabhan, at Northern Arizona University's Center for
Sustainable Environments, is assisting in the marketing efforts and
ecotourism support for the Seri (e-mail him at

Federal officials and environmentalists plan on placing the Dorismar ads on
billboards near Mexico City and nesting states including Jalisco, Michoacan
and Guerrero. Urging people to report illegal trade in the species to the
federal Attorney General's Office for Environmental Protection at (800)
PROFEPA, the ad campaign will continue to draw attention as well as

For their part, the Seri plan on continuing to sing for the turtles and
take care of their ecosystem -- which today faces threats from potential
tidal energy-generating plants and shrimp aquaculture. It's on the Sea of
Cortez, perhaps more aptly named the Seri or Comcaac Sea, that today a
200-million-year-old relative might have a chance of staying around for
another millennium. That is also thanks to the cleavage of a model, Viagra
and, hopefully, a few other options in securing an erection for the future
generations of Mexican and other men.

Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe, from the White Earth Reservation, is program
director of Honor the Earth, a national Native environmental justice
program. She served as the Green Party vice presidential candidate in the
1996 and 2000 elections. She can be reached at