Spectrum: The struggle for survival

Spectrum: The struggle for survival

Recovery plan Ahead of World Turtle Day, here's a look at the threats sea turtles face, and the efforts to conserve them

In March 2018, the city of Mumbai woke up to long bygone visitors — the olive ridley turtles were crawling on the Versova beach after two decades! Mumbai beaches, infamous for being a pile of garbage, were being cleaned for years for this grand welcome. Though the turtles may have been nesting in the nearby beaches, this cleanup provided extra space for successful nesting. What’s so remarkable about the turtles, you ask? Well, turtles are amongst the oldest reptiles inhabiting earth and can live for up to a 100 years. Some of them are classified as endangered or critically endangered, making their sightings a feast for the eyes.

A vital link

Turtles are found in both freshwater and seawater, and lay eggs on land. Sea turtles travel miles between their feeding ground and nesting ground. Some sea turtles are known to migrate as far as 8,000 miles or more! Loggerhead turtles are known for their migration from Baja California in Mexico to Japan. In some cases, the turtles migrate great distances to nest on the same beach year after year, and lay eggs in pits laboriously dug with their flippers. This phenomenon is known as arribada, the Spanish word for arrival, and is observed only in two species of turtles —
olive ridley and Kemp’s ridley turtles. This phenomenon can be observed in Odisha when thousands of female turtles visit its shores for mass nesting.

Turtles play a crucial role in nutrient cycling as they transport nutrients from the water to dunes that are nutrient-deficit, resulting in healthy beaches. Their shells are home to epibionts — organisms that live on the surface of another organism — and are eaten by seabirds. Hawksbill turtles are known to feed on sponges in the ocean, making space for the growth of healthy coral population. As the top predator of jellyfish, leatherback turtles help maintain balance in the food web.

However, all is not well with these magnificent creatures. In recent times, their survival is threatened by many factors. They are often victims of incidental catch in trawler fishing vessels. Casuarina trees, planted to reduce calamities during strong winds and for timber, destroy their nesting spaces. Feral dogs, raptors such as eagles, and a few human communities eat their eggs. Unplanned beach developments involving the construction of resorts are a threat as well. Hunting turtles for meat and climate change are some of the other dangers that the turtles face.

With their dwindling population, the ability of turtles to maintain the health of the world’s oceans goes down. There are also misconceptions about how turtles affect the fish in the sea. For example, in Agatti, one of the islands in Lakshadweep, local fishermen believe that the decline in fish catch is due to the increase in the number of green turtles.

Conservation at multiple levels

Recognising the threats they face and their vital role in the ecosystem, turtles are now protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which prevents their hunting and trade. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreement provides absolute protection by banning some turtle species from being traded, with offences being fined the highest penalties. Forest Departments in many states are trying to push the belief that turtles are an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and hence they need to be conserved. However, these steps seem to be inadequate as hundreds of turtles are still found dead on the coasts for various reasons.

Today, many researchers, organisations, and individuals across the country have come together to address these threats. There are conservation efforts at multiple scales and levels, including educating local communities about the benefits of turtles. One such effort is the long-term monitoring of olive ridley turtles in Rushikulya, Odisha and leatherback turtles in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This was initiated a decade ago by Dr Kartik Shanker and his team through the Dakshin Foundation and the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science. The team is actively involved in the monitoring of nesting and offshore populations, genetic studies and in tracking turtles using satellite telemetry. Another initiative called the Turtle Action Group, a collective of non-profit organisations and individuals across India, monitors turtles throughout the coast and carries out awareness programmes.

The movement of turtles on the Indian coasts can be tracked to Western Australia in the East and to Mozambique and Madagascar in the West. Researchers attach transmitters by drilling through the ridge on the back of the turtle and tying it in place with wires that are threaded through plastic tubing. This has to be done quickly during the few minutes that the turtle is laying eggs. “In the Lakshadweep islands, green turtles have been doing the damnedest thing. They have been overgrazing the seagrass meadows,” says Muralidharan M, field director, Dakshin Foundation. Perhaps that’s why some may have shifted elsewhere as the numbers show. In Agatti, there used to be about 500 turtles within the lagoons about 10 years ago. Now, there are just about 50.

The good news is that turtle monitoring in Rushikulya suggests that the olive ridley nesting population in Odisha is either stable or increasing. However, local fishermen are at the risk of livelihood loss due to conservation measures during the turtle-breeding season. Dr Madhuri Ramesh, a researcher from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, has explored how olive ridleys were made into ‘conservation objects’ and the resistance this conservation project is facing. The idea of providing alternative livelihoods for the local fishermen has mostly failed, and researchers are trying to understand the reasons behind the failure of past conservation efforts.

Citizen science provides an opportunity for everyone interested in being a part of conservation efforts. When integrated with scientific research, it can work wonders in conservation. The Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), a voluntary group in Chennai, has been active since 1988. Arun Venkataraman, a coordinator of SSTCN, says, “Over the last 30 years, a few hundred youngsters have carried the responsibility of the programme. Many of them are now involved in environmental work as researchers, conservationists, activists, journalists and environmental filmmakers.”

Most conservation efforts focus on involving not only researchers and ecologists but also local communities. This is done by helping them understand how small steps can help rebuild the population of turtles to healthy levels. Setting up hatcheries on the shores, turning off lights when hatchlings emerge and conducting awareness programmes goes a long way in helping the survival of the turtles. As Aldo Leopold, an ecologist and conservationist, famously said, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” It is this harmony that many are working towards, in the hope that we can preserve many forms of lives from disappearing forever.