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ENVIRONMENT REPORT- March 29, 2002: Saving Sea Turtles - 2002-03-22

This is the VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT.

Environmental groups in the United States are leading a campaign to save thousands of endangered sea turtles. They have asked Pope John Paul the Second to ban turtle meat during the Christian religious observance known as Lent. Christians observe Lent in preparation for the holiday of Easter.

Environmental groups say illegal turtle hunting is one of the major threats to endangered sea turtles in southern California and Mexico. It has been illegal to harvest and eat sea turtle meat in Mexico for more than ten years. However, demand for sea turtle meat is widespread in both Southern California and Mexico. Biologists believe that illegal hunting is one of the main reasons for the sharp drop in sea turtle populations during the past thirty years.

The week before Easter Sunday is an especially deadly time for the turtles. As many as five-thousand turtles are killed during this time each year.

Many Mexicans and Mexican Americans eat turtle meat during the days before Easter. Many people do not eat meat during this holy time in order to obey the rules of Lent. Because sea turtles swim, many people consider them to be fish. Fish is permitted during Lent.

The Sea Turtle Conservation Network is a coalition of fishermen, environmental activists and researchers. They sent a letter to Pope John Paul. They urged the Roman Catholic Church leader to officially declare that sea turtle flesh is meat, not fish or seafood. They say thousands of these endangered animals would be saved if people did not eat them during this religious period. The letter also asked members of the Catholic Church to obey laws banning the capture of turtles in Mexico and the United States.

About thirty-five-thousand endangered sea turtles are killed illegally near the coasts of Baja, California, each year. Studies have shown a sharp drop in the numbers of females. They travel from as far away as Japan to lay their eggs on local beaches.

Environmental activists say hunting sea turtles for their meat is the main barrier to the recovery of the species. They have urged the governments of the United States and Mexico to improve enforcement of the ban on sea turtle harvesting.

This VOA Special English ENVIRONMENT REPORT was written by Cynthia Kirk.