Travelers of the Year: John and Hilda Denham

Coastal conservationists hatch a plan

United Airlines is proud to partner with National Geographic in creating the Sustainable Travel Leadership Award. Our award winners were selected based on their leadership and dedication to the principles of ecotourism—environmental protection, conservation, and education; local community enrichment and empowerment; and eco-conscious visitor behavior. United understands the importance of protecting the cultural, environmental, economic, and aesthetic integrity of the destinations it serves and ensuring those destinations remain attractive places to live, work, and visit for generations. For more information about United Airlines, click here.


John Denham has spent more than two decades protecting Costa Rica’s turtles. When he first traveled there he saw leatherbacks on the edge of extinction on the Pacific Coast and green turtles endangered on the Caribbean coast. “Poachers roamed freely along the beaches, killing turtles and robbing eggs from nests,” he recalls. With a commitment to conservation, this prompted John to take action.

In 1989, John bought 2,000 acres of coastal forest with a goal of protecting nearly four miles of turtle-nesting beach. When he established The Pacuare Nature Reserve nearly every turtle nest was pilfered by poachers and green turtles were being slaughtered. Today, 24-hour patrolling has reduced poaching to 2 percent and the forest is rich in wildlife, with over 30 mammal species and a bird list of 230.

John and his wife, Hilda, travel from London to Costa Rica to lobby for local support for sustainable policies and to engage local schools in educational missions. Staff biologists study the reserve’s ecosystem, volunteers plant trees and join night patrols, and school groups bunk in rustic cabanas and count hatchlings as they race from their nests to the sea.


National Geographic Traveler: How did you hatch your plan?

John Denham: I heard about the turtles in Costa Rica from someone I met in Mexico. On my next trip to Latin America, I diverted to Costa Rica to see them. On the Pacific coast I saw leatherbacks, already by then, in 1986, on the way to semi-extinction, and green turtles on the Caribbean coast at Tortuguero. Next year I returned and joined a project to lead children on a beach near Limon to see the huge leatherbacks digging their nests and laying their eggs—an unforgettable experience. I saw how poachers roamed freely along all the beaches, took and killed the green turtles and robbed eggs from all turtle nests. This spurred me to become personally involved, and in 1989 I bought three square miles of degraded forest land, used for growing coconuts and grazing cattle, fronting a 3.75-mile-long leatherback nesting beach on the Caribbean coast.

NGT: What impact have you had so far?

JD: We have let the land develop into a thriving forest, home to over 30 species of mammal including jaguar, monkeys, peccaries, and deer, and we have counted 230 bird species. The beach is the most important nesting beach in Costa Rica for leatherbacks. We have beach guards throughout the seven months of the turtle season and our loss of nests to poachers is about two percent. We are the only fully protected beach on the Caribbean coast.

NGT: What do you love about turtles?

Hilda Denham: One afternoon long ago, I was walking along the beach and suddenly saw it moving! As I approached the area I realized that tiny turtles had emerged from their nest. Leatherbacks had hatched and were rushing to the sea. Seagulls came from every direction, crabs appeared and tried to pull them to their holes. It is a miracle the turtles got to the sea. For me, it’s this vulnerability, combined with the turtles’ innate determination, that make me want to protect them.

NGT: Describe a typical Pacuare guest experience.

HD: The process of watching a leatherback turtle coming out of the sea, digging her nest and knowing when it is deep enough to lay eggs, is a moving and fascinating experience. Leatherback turtles are so big, yet so vulnerable. Once a female is finished she camouflages and leaves having done a good job. But humans often trick the turtle and steal her eggs. Our goal is to protect wildlife, so we welcome all visitors to walk the trails and to join the night patrols together with biologists, field assistants, and beach guards. March to June is the leatherback nesting season. From June to September, green turtles nest here. And from May onwards, hatchlings can be seen emerging from their nests. School groups and volunteers can stay the night in cabanas. We are constantly inviting nearby villagers who have heard about the Reserve but have never been to visit. We also ask businesspeople and international travelers to sponsor local school trips to visit.

NGT: Share some wild tales of life at Pacuare.

HD: Last year, one of the crocodiles in our big lagoon was looking for somewhere to dig a nest and lay her eggs. She had tried various places but none suited her. Then she found the only good site in the whole lagoon, a sandy bank beside our boat station only two yards from a busy path used throughout the day. She dug the nest and laid her eggs all in one night. In the morning it was a fait accompli. What to do? Crocodiles keep a close eye on their nest during incubation. What would be her reaction when she saw people coming and going so near to her precious nest and eggs? We built a chain-link fence between the nest and the path, and carried on as normal. So did she, staying in the water close to the nest or sunning herself on the sand nearby. After day 80 we placed cameras to catch the action and on day 89 were rewarded with photos of her coming up the bank to open the nest and help the young break out of the eggs, later carrying them in her mouth to the other side of the lagoon.

NGT: What does the future hold for Pacuare?

JD: We aim to attract more researchers to the reserve. At present we have two biologists and eight field assistants monitoring and taking data from the laying turtles. We are expanding the education program with more school groups from within Costa Rica and from overseas. Environmental education is vital. Conservation does not come easily to the Costa Ricans and the government should do more than just pass laws which nobody obeys. Poaching is as bad now as it was 25 years ago.

NGT: What’s your ultimate goal for Pacuare?

JD: We would like to see Pacuare as a tropical research center and a destination for school groups from all over the world to learn about conservation by participating in our turtle program. Helping to take data from the laying turtles and counting the hatchlings as they break out of their nests is the best possible lesson in conservation. More a hope than a goal is that the beach should one day be looked after by Costa Rican field assistants and that beach guards should no longer be necessary.

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NGT: How have your own travels inspired your work at Pacuare?

HD: Traveling has helped me appreciate the wonders of the world, especially as regards to nature and people. Often people in villages, isolated from the big world, are unaware of the treasures they have. So it is very special to see people change their views and attitudes once they learn, for example, about the life cycle of a turtle and the importance of protecting their eggs instead of eating them. Many people have never given it a thought, but once they know the importance of such protection, they quickly change their thinking. Schoolkids have written that “a visit to the Reserve is a window that opens to a different world.” So they, too, are learning about the joys of traveling!

NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?

JD: Wherever we are traveling, we set out with enthusiasm and open minds ready to receive ideas. In Mexico four years ago we visited a large school in a very dry area of the country and were struck by the lack of trees. We were able to initiate a tree-planting program and enthuse the headmaster who made tree-planting part of the school curriculum and the children came to school during the dry season with a bottle of water for their own tree.

NGT: Do you have any travel advice?

JD: Try not to travel too fast. Better to linger than rush to the next destination. And learn to speak a little of the local language—the more the better.

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