Mabyn Armstrong said she felt like a child waiting for Christmas Day every time she and her husband travelled to the western edge of Kingston, Ont., to check on 400 turtle eggs that were on the verge of hatching.
They volunteer with Turtles Kingston and have been checking in on the nests every 11 hours.
But when the couple arrived last Sunday morning, they discovered several of the screened covers protecting the nests had been lifted and nearly 300 eggs taken. Armstrong believes it was the work of poachers.
"We're devastated," she told CBC Radio's All In A Day. "We realized it wasn't an act of vandalism because there was no intentional damage to the equipment. We saw a clear set of footprints on both sides of the nest protectors."
Eggs removed with 'surgical' precision
The nest protectors were anchored with 30-centimetre galvanized spikes, with heavy landscaping bricks placed on top, Armstrong said. The footprints beside the protectors were deep, showing where the suspected thief had strained to hoist the boxes off the ground.
"We could not believe the precision with which those eggs were extracted," she said. "He did not remove one teaspoon of soil more than what was necessary to get at the eggs. It was surgical."
Volunteers had also dug a tunnel system to help the baby turtles survive their journey to the nearby wetlands. Armstrong said she doesn't want to identify the species of turtle that were taken for fear of attracting further theft.
Thriving black market
Armstrong said there's a thriving black market for turtles that's "much larger than anyone could imagine," and said China, where the turtle population has been decimated, is often the final destination. There, the animals are often used as food or in medicine, she said.
While these hatchlings will take up to 18 years to reach sexual maturity, poachers are often willing to invest that time to sell them in countries that value the reptiles.
"This is a way for them to replenish an item that is very important to them," Armstrong said.
Steve Marks, a Windsor-based herpetologist who has studied many of Ontario's reptiles, said turtles are sometimes stolen to be sold as pets, both in Canada and overseas. He said people also eat them.
"In Ontario, our eight species are all at risk and yet people still consume them," Marks wrote in an email.
Poaching isn't the only threat: Marks said raccoons often feed on turtle eggs, and turtles are crushed trying to cross busy roads. "There are many places in our province where no turtles hatch," he said.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has confirmed its conservation officers are investigating the apparent theft.
Under Ontario's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, anyone caught buying or selling "game wildlife or specially protected wildlife" can face fines of up to $100,000.
For now, Armstrong's main concern is returning the stolen animals to their home turf.
"It's really important that turtles never be relocated," she said. "If they are, it seriously jeopardizes their survivability."
Turtles Kingston did discover the shells of 60 eggs still buried in the ground, suggesting those hatchlings made it to the nearby water.
Armstrong said one possible way to prevent future thefts is to remove the eggs shortly after the mother lays them, then incubating them in a licensed facility until they hatch. The hatchlings can then be returned to the nest to make their own way to the water.
"That's guaranteed, that method," she said.