Save our turtles

need of the hour

Save our turtles

A walk along the beach on a crisp winter night can sometimes offer more than just starry skies and soothing waves. Come January, on almost all of India’s beaches, on the beaches of Chennai or Odisha in particular, a hard-shelled reptile, the Olive Ridley sea turtle, emerges from the water, climbs up the gentle slope leading to the beach and walks over the sand to dig a nest and lay about 100 eggs. The soft, rubbery eggs stay in the warm, flask-shaped nest for 45 to 65 days, after which the beaches get overrun with turtle babies heading back into the sea. When the females reach adulthood and when it’s time to lay eggs, they seek out the beach where they were born and lay eggs there.

The Olive Ridley turtle is the smallest and most abundant of the sea turtles found in the world. During the breeding season (from November to April), they start arriving in large numbers along the coasts of India. At certain beaches such as Gahirmatha and Rushikulya in Odisha, these turtles come ashore en masse in February or March and more than 1,00,000 turtles nest together in the space for about a week. This mass nesting is called arribada, which means ‘arrival’ in Spanish and occurs only at a few locations around the world.

“When I was in college in Chennai in the 1980s, I went on a ‘turtle walk’ with a group of turtle enthusiasts. We walked on the beach in southern Chennai through the night looking for nesting Olive Ridleys,” says Kartik Shanker, an associate professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He has been studying turtles for over 15 years now. Based on his research, Kartik has written a book, From Soup to Superstar: The Story of Sea Turtle Conservation along the Indian Coast. “The book traces the history of sea turtle conservation in India from before Independence to the current day,” says Kartik. 

India has five of the seven species of marine turtles in its coastal areas. The green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nests in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, while the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) is considered rare and nests in Sri Lanka.

Both species are endangered. The Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) is known widely in the Indian subcontinent thanks to its mass nesting behaviour in Odisha every year. Given the mass nesting phenomenon and the threats this population has faced, campaigns in and around Odisha are the major focus of Kartik’s book. “It also turns the spotlight on the birthplace of citizen participation in turtle conservation in Chennai and Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” he says. This vulnerable species nests on both east and west coasts of the mainland as well as in remote locations at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where a new small mass-nesting beach has been recently discovered. The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), also considered vulnerable, nests predominantly in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as does the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), which is considered critically endangered.

Reducing numbers
The life of turtles has a lot to do with coastal habitats such as beaches and near shore and oceanic marine habitats. Adult turtles spend much of their time foraging in specific feeding grounds, then migrate to other areas of the ocean to mate. Mating occurs in offshore waters, while nesting and hatching of young ones take place exclusively on land.

Female turtles dig a deep hole in the sand, so that dogs, birds and other predators will not be able to dig out the eggs easily. In this nest, about a hundred eggs are laid, depending on the species.

Young ones, known as hatchlings, belonging to a batch of eggs, hatch almost simultaneously. Attracted by light, the hatchlings instinctively crawl towards the sea because it reflects the moon and starlight. Most species spend the next few years being carried around the ocean currents and living in seaweed rafts. Some return to shallow waters when they are juveniles. It takes 10 to 15 years for a turtle to reach adulthood.

When it’s time to lay eggs, female turtles return to the same beach where they hatched. Males, on the other hand, never leave the sea after entering it as hatchlings.

Today, turtle numbers have vastly reduced due to a variety of threats. Perhaps,  the development of coastal regions and human encroachment into it have proved a threat to these turtles. The beach and human inhabited areas are often brighter than the sea and hatchlings tend to crawl away from the ocean, instead of toward it. There are many instances when these little ones are spotted on the road. Consequently, they are either crushed by vehicles or killed by predators.

Another important factor threatening the turtle population is indiscriminate
fishing. Turtles are lung-breathing reptiles and need to break the surface every half-an-hour in order to replenish their oxygen supply. In many areas, fishermen use huge trawler nets that are not pulled up for several hours. Turtles get caught in such nets, suffocate and die in large numbers. Apart from commercial trawling, some communities take turtle eggs from beaches, as it is a good source of nutrition and is easily available. In addition, adult turtles continue to be killed for meat in some places along the coast.

A helping hand
Organisations like the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), which Kartik helped build, have been working for the cause of turtle conservation.

Volunteers walk the beach every night during the nesting season. Trails made by nesting females are identified and nests are carefully probed for eggs. The eggs are then relocated to a protected part of the beach (called a hatchery), where they are allowed to hatch in completely natural conditions. The hatchlings are released into the sea at night after each nest hatches. In 2009, civil society organisations working on sea turtle conservation and coastal issues in India came together and formed a national network called the Turtle Action Group.

As a result of conservation campaigns, now it is mandatory for trawler nets to be fitted with turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which will allow turtles to escape from the nets. Even though experimental trawls have shown that catch will be reduced by about 10 per cent because of these devices, fishermen have routinely been refusing to use them for many reasons. There has been a constant conflict between fishermen and conservationists in Odisha. In order to assist with this, the Odisha Marine Resources Conservation Consortium (OMRCC) was set up. It serves as a platform where fisher unions, turtle biologists, civil society organisations and the people interested in sea turtle conservation can come together to bring about sustainable fishing and ensure turtle conservation.

“Iconic species like sea turtles can be used as flagships to motivate people to engage with the environment and become involved in conservation, thereby creating a larger constituency for the protecting our coastal and marine habitats,” concludes Kartik.

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