Simple fisherfolk collect Olive Ridley eggs, watch over them and finally see little hatchings through to the sea. They are the cogs that drive a massive conservation effort, as LALITHASAI finds out during a turtle walk.

Kumar is a foot soldier in the fight for the Olive Ridleys. When these sea turtles come ashore to nest, this fisherman from Srinivasapuram scours the beach for their eggs. Next, he carries these ovals of white to a hatchery in Srinivasapuram, near the Adyar estuary. He does this – day in, day out. To most of us, the task might appear almost Sisyphean in its repetition. But not for Kumar. He takes pride in what he does.

Kumar is among the faceless dozens that power a great conservation effort. He volunteers for the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN), a group that watches over the coast from Napier Bridge (Marina) to Neelankarai during the Ridley nesting season (December to May), and undertakes a raft of arduous tasks until the hatchings paddle into the sea.

Well over two decades old, SSTCN has many Kumars to thank for. More specifically, fisherfolk who abandon their nets during the Ridley season. I. Karunakaran, a resident of Uroor Kuppam, another fishing hamlet on this stretch, near the broken bridge, is also involved in the project. He does not consider this something to brag about. “I am only doing what I should do for Nature,” says the unassuming Karunakaran.

He is excited about his work. “When I find eggs, I dig a pit 45 cm to 50 cm deep at a hatchery in Besant Nagar and place them within it. Next, I mark this ‘nest area’ with a stick. Around the time hatching is expected (usually, 45 to 50 days), the nest is covered with a bamboo basket to prevent the hatchlings from moving helter-skelter and getting lost. The hatchlings begin to move freely a day or two after they come out of the nest. The next step – the final one – is guiding the hatchlings towards the sea. Watching the little ones excitedly flap their tiny flippers and go into the sea is a beautiful experience.”

Karunakaran maintains the Besant Nagar hatchery and spends entire days watching out for crows, crabs and dogs that can prey on Ridley eggs. Not just that, the Karunakaranas and Kumars also engage in some nifty ‘climate control’ work.

“At times, temperatures being too high, the eggs do not hatch. Then, volunteers place thin jute material as shade for the nests,” says Akila Balu, coordinator, SSTCN.

The ordeal is not over yet. When the hatchlings arrive, volunteers often play guides.

“Bright lights along the beach can lead the hatchlings astray. Our volunteers keep their eyes peeled for this possibility,” says Arun, another coordinator of SSTCN.

Drawn to bright lights

“Hatchlings are intrinsically programmed to move towards a bright horizon. On a beach free of artificial lighting, they move towards the sea waters which reflect the light of the stars and the moon,” Akila.

Says Kumar, who maintains the hatchery at Srinivasapuram:

“The journey from the nest to the sea is a long one for a little Ridley. Therefore, when we watch a batch of little Ridleys rushing towards the sea, our happiness is mixed with relief.”

This year, many happy farewells are expected. SSTCN volunteers report that so far 220 nests (each containing 60 eggs) have been spotted this season, the largest in 25 years. Isn’t that something to flap one’s flippers about?

(The TREE Foundation, similarly watches over nesting Olive Ridleys from Neelangarai to Injambakkam through one of its wings, Sea Turtle Protection Force, largely composed of fishermen-volunteers).

SSTCN organizes turtle walks during the weekends. Every year nearly 2,000 volunteers (school and college students, entire families – all drawn from various States and cities) join these walks.

Through folk arts, the group sensitises fisherfolk to environment issues, including marine eco-system and protection of Olive Ridleys. Paid a nominal money, these fisherfolk help SSTCN’s in its conservation work. Fresh teams of volunteering fishermen come in every year, sometimes replacing old ones.

The best part of it: the children of these fisherfolk also patrol the coast during the Ridley season.

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