A casual stroll down the beach nine years ago introduced Supraja Dharini to the world of turtles. The conservator tells Prince Frederick that her work to save the Olive Ridley now extends to larger coastal issues

Olive Ridleys face heavy odds. Only one in a thousand Ridley hatchlings released into the sea survives to maturity. When sceptics confront Supraja Dharini with this statistic and ask her if saving these sea turtles will make any significant difference, she gives them a pithy reply: “It will surely make a difference to that hatchling!”

In conservation work spanning nine years and covering stretches of the East Coast, Supraja has given thousands of Ridley hatchlings the hope of life. This year, her Sea Turtle Protection Force (STPF) — consisting of fishermen and volunteers and attached to the TREE Foundation which she established in 2002 — has considerably improved upon the good work of the past. “We released 51,000 baby Ridleys this year; in all the previous years put together, we managed only 55,000,” says Supraja.

The spurt in numbers is a result of an expansion programme that began in 2008, when she woke up to the grave danger the Ridleys faced on the Andhra Pradesh coast. Until then, STPF's work — helped largely by the forest, fisheries and environment departments — was restricted to a section of the Tamil Nadu coast. “During a visit to Nellore three years ago, I learnt that the Yenadi tribes ate the Olive Ridleys that came ashore to nest. In Ponnupudi, 45 km from Nellore town, this problem was rampant,” says Supraja. “In Tamil Nadu, only the Ridley eggs ended up on the plate.” Her heart went out to the Yenadi tribes when she discovered that they live in appalling conditions, but she knew they had to be stopped from preying on the poor Ridleys.

Conservation measures that had succeeded in Tamil Nadu were employed. Fishing communities were sensitised to the need for protecting the Ridleys. “They began to watch out for these sea creatures. They would not allow the Yenadi tribes to hunt for the Ridleys.” The Fisheries Department and the wildlife wing of the Forest Department in Andhra Pradesh were also won over to the cause.

Today, the STPF is active in Nellore, Visakhapatnam and Kakinada; and in Tamil Nadu, its influence stretches from Periya Neelangarai to Puducherry. Behind Supraja's devotion to the cause, lies a deep love for sea turtles.

Guests from the ocean

At TREE Foundation's office in Vettuvankeni — a house belonging to her parents — Supraja has guests from the ocean all the time. Olivia is among juvenile Ridleys and a Hawksbill Turtle being treated for evident injuries (impatient trawl fishermen had cut the flippers of these turtles caught in their nets: a recurrent issue that is being addressed by the TREE Foundation). Fortunately, each of these juvenile turtles has lost only one flipper and can, therefore, be returned to the sea. Karuna and Apti — two adult Ridleys — are not so lucky. Each has only one functional flipper, and can't swim in the seas anymore. They have become Supraja's family. “Considering that they have a life span of 50 years, they may outlive me,” says Supraja, who is 46.

Supraja developed a fascination for sea turtles in 2002 when she witnessed a gravid Ridley lay eggs and secure its ‘nest' by closing it with powerful thumps of its flippers, on the beach near her house.

“Every time I watch a baby Ridley struggle out of small depressions, made by human feet, and dash towards the sea, hope springs within me. The life of an Olive Ridley is an analogy for survival in a hostile world,” says Supraja. “I am trying to give them some advantage in this fight for survival.”

Unsurprisingly, Supraja carries a sea turtle made of paper mesh as her mascot — a la Jane Goodall, who carries a fluffy and soft chimpanzee toy. Totally in awe of Goodall, Supraja tries to emulate her in every way. Just as Goodall has worked up to the larger issues of conservation after establishing a reputation as a primatologist, Supraja is beginning to address other issues connected with the sea.

TREE Foundation carries out studies of other sea creatures at risk, especially dolphins. It works with fishing communities to persuade them to use nets with wider meshes and other equipment that will not disturb bio-diversity in the waters. Most important, it conducts workshops for officials of the Indian Coast Guard, the marine police and environment, forest and fisheries departments to help them

identify and understand endangered species. Posters with pictures and names of these sea creatures and other identification guides are handed out.

Noticing the effectiveness of this programme in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has asked Supraja and her team to conduct similar workshops for officials working in the other coastal states.

Supraja never believed her movement would gain such importance: “It is amazing how a casual stroll down the beach nine years ago has brought me so far.”

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