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Penn State DuBois Student Helps Save Endangered Sea Turtles

In the photo: Baby sea turtles are released into the sea.
Baby sea turtles are released into the sea.
8/31/2010 —

DuBois – Tony Harris wanted to make a difference in the world by doing something to help the planet while, at the same time, simplifying his own life.  Going into his senior year as an Earth and Mineral Science Major at Penn State DuBois, he decided there was no better time to make a difference than his last summer as an undergrad. 


"One night I was lying in bed and couldn't sleep, and I saw all of this material stuff around me," said Harris.  "I thought it was just ridiculous to have all of this stuff.  I thought if I didn't have it around, I could figure out me." 


So, Harris began searching for a cause.  He wanted to get back to basics and make a difference in the conservation of a natural resource.  He found La Tortuga Feliz, a non-profit organization for the protection of sea turtles in Costa Rica.  The organization turned out to be just what Harris was looking for.


"The green turtle is my favorite animal, plus I just know that the ocean is in trouble.  I wanted to help," Harris said.  "Running a conservation program like this one day would be an ultimate goal of mine." 


Harris got first-hand knowledge of what it takes to make a program like La Tortuga Feliz work.  He spent the month of June in South East Costa Rica collecting sea turtle eggs and taking them to a hatchery for incubation.  Each night, he and fellow volunteers walked approximately six miles along the beach to watch for mother turtles digging a hole in the sand to build a nest.  When they spotted a turtle, the volunteers would simply wait for her to begin laying, then hold a bag under the turtle to catch her eggs.  Each mother can lay from 60 to 120 eggs at a time.  Hatchling turtles will emerge from the eggs after 55 days in incubation, and are then released into the sea. 


"The hatchery really increases the chances of survival for the baby turtles," Harris explained.  "On the beach there are poachers, ants that can destroy the nests, and feral dogs that will dig them up and eat them."


Harris explained that poachers will collect the turtle eggs for sale at local markets, where they are sold as a delicacy.  Poachers can make a good living from the sale of these eggs, sometimes collecting hundreds of dollars for a single night's work. 


Harris' work did not go unnoticed by the university, either.  Before he left, Instructor in Wildlife Technology Keely Roen was able to set up internship guidelines for Harris' work with La Tortuga Feliz, turning his volunteer mission into an opportunity to further his education and earn credits toward his degree. 


"I was very happy this worked out for Tony.  When he told me about his experience, I knew that the work he was doing would make an excellent internship opportunity, but also would really interest a lot of students here," said Roen. 


There may have been even more important lessons learned for Harris, however.  Since a large part of his motivation for taking this volunteer opportunity was a desire to simplify life for a while, and do some soul searching, Harris found that Costa Rica provided the backdrop he needed. 


"I took a lot from this and learned a lot about myself," Harris said.  "You're secluded out there.  We only had a shack with bunks in it.  It's quiet, with no modern conveniences.  I found that I love the simple life, and getting back to nature."


Harris, in fact, plans to get back to La Tortuga Feliz as well.  After graduation in the spring, he wants to volunteer with the organization again, and may become certified to teach English to the Costa Rican residents who live there.    


To learn more about La Tortuga Feliz, visit http://www.latortugafeliz.com/default.asp?action=pagina&pagina=31&taal=2


To see a video on the organization produced during Harris' time there, log onto http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkApGPQI0Z8

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