On a moonlit night, a group of young men huddled around a green turtle as it dug deep into a beach to lay its eggs.
They could hear the turtle breathing and grunting as it went into a trancelike state, dropping eggs the size of pingpong balls into a glistening pile.
The men, once the village toughs, stood aside as the turtle finished, shoveling sand over the nest with its back flippers.
As a teenager, Phushara Weerawarna would have pounced on the nest as soon as the turtle left, eating some eggs raw and keeping the rest to sell illegally.
Now, he protects the turtle eggs and patrols the beach to keep would-be poachers at bay.
Weerawarna and more than a dozen other former nest-raiders work for the Turtle Conservation Project, a local group dedicated to safeguarding the turtle nests of Rekawa beach in southern Sri Lanka, where about 100,000 turtle eggs are buried each year.
“I definitely love them,” said Weerawarna, 27. “We like protecting them.”
This one-mile stretch of sand is one of the country’s most important nesting grounds for the endangered green turtle, and one of South Asia’s only beaches where five species of turtle nest.
The group’s community-based conservation philosophy is part of a worldwide shift toward connecting locals with their environment that experts say may offer the best chance for protecting endangered species.
Before the project was founded in 1994, the Rekawa nests were regularly picked clean by poachers who spent nights at the beach fighting over turtle eggs and drinking coconut liquor.
Yet instead of running the poachers out of town, the turtle experts hired them.
“They were considered to be the lowest of the low,” said Peter Richardson, a founder and British biologist with the Marine Conservation Society.
“They were the wild boys of the village. It took a leap of faith.”
That leap has paid off for the turtles, whose hatchlings now make it to the sea, and it’s paid off for the former poachers.
Siripala Edisuriya poached eggs for 15 years, selling them to tea shops and market stalls because he couldn’t find other work. Now, he’s a nest patroller on the night shift.
“It’s hard work, but I’m proud of what I do,” he said.
As a Buddhist, he is filled with guilt over his poaching days.
“It was a big sin,” said Edisuriya, the oldest of the group at 59. “I don’t know how long it will take to pay off that sin. I have to face my bad karma.”
It took three years for Richardson to convince the men to protect the nests instead of raid them. There were long talks about conservation and biology. But it was the offers of steady salaries that won them over.
“It was just about the money to start with, but as the program developed their status improved,” said Richardson. “They’ve been able to economically improve their families’ lives.”
It was a rocky transition, one that a few poachers didn’t make. But most became paid patrollers, earning about $3 per shift, and then genuine conservationists.
The number of marine turtles is difficult to pinpoint, but green turtles are endangered and other species are even more vulnerable, said Brian Hutchinson, a marine turtle specialist with IUCN World Conservation Union.
“Overall, the population shows that the species are generally in decline, so there’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re seeing some positive steps,” said Hutchinson.
South Asia is especially difficult for turtles because people have traditionally eaten them and their eggs, and because the region has many impoverished areas where conservation hasn’t taken root.
But increasingly, local projects similar to Rekawa have popped up across Asia and the rest of the world, said Hutchinson.