For every 1000 Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings, only one survives to reach adulthood, says Supraja Dharini, founder, Tree Foundation, an organisation engaged in sea turtle conservation along the Chennai coast.
This sounds alarming at the backdrop of an increased number of Olive Ridley carcasses washed ashore the coast here this nesting season since December 2009 at sporadic intervals. About 400 Olive Ridley carcasses have been found along the 187 km coast line here over the course of past few months and V. Thirunavukarasu, Wild Life Warden, Nagapattinam, places them as a conservative number. Generally, each adult turtle holds about 70 to 150 eggs, say conservationists.
This is despite the proactive efforts taken up by the district forest department, which has for the first time recorded GPS markings since the start of the nesting season in December. The exact latitude and longitude of the nesting ground, is being uploaded in the Geographical Information Systems platform. This would serve as a geo-referencing material and function as a database not just for turtle conservation, but also for development projects along the coast without jeopardizing the marine species. However, this has to be compiled for over a period of few years, says Mr. Thirunavukarasu. However, patrolling could only be limited as 11 camps and 6 hatcheries are not sufficient to cover the160 km long coast line, says Mr. Thirunavukarasu. As of date, over 4,650 eggs were collected and 697 hatchings released here this season. Turtle carcasses are also being recorded through GPS.
Turtle deaths are primarily caused by turtle ensnaring in trawler propellers in shallow waters and in fishing nets. Shallow water trawling ought to be stopped through sensitisation. We request the fishermen to pull up their nets every 40 minutes for the turtles to breathe, says Dr. Supraja.
Turtle exclusion devices fixed to nets is a solution, but the fishermen are logistically constrained considering the number of nets being used, says V. Thirunavukarasu.
And there are independent crusaders like K. Asokan, Veterinarian, Animal Husbandry Department, Nagapattinam, who has taken personal initiatives towards sensitisation, turtle rescue and turtle necropsies. These are individual sporadic efforts that need sustenance through funds.
According to Dr. Asokan, breeding of turtles for a considerable period rather than immediate release of hatchlings into the sea would help their survival rates.
The fact that these are scheduled animals protected under the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, does not drive home the point. According to Dr. Supraja, in the face of hardships faced by fishing community, it is sensitisation and not enforcement that could produce results. Budgetary allocation is needed exclusively for conservation, and corporates need to step in, she says.
The rescue of a turtle costs Rs.500 per day, says Dr. Supraja. Organisations like Tree Foundation sensitises fishermen and Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) holds turtle walks along the Chennai coast. But, struggles need to be waged and partnerships need to be built also elsewhere along the coasts.
The Nagapattinam Forest Department had released funds for the payment of salaries for sea turtle conservationists of the Tree Foundation from its Central government funds for Conservation of Point Calimere Wetland Complex.
The Tamil Nadu Forest Department has released over one lakh hatchings since late eighties, when the Turtle conservation programme was taken up by the department. Further, a proposal has now been sent to the Government of India for Species recovery programme for the entire Tamil Nadu Coast for Turtles, says R. Sunderaraju, Chief Wild Life Warden, Chennai.
Fishermen do not cause wilful harm and they need to be sensitised, says the Chief Wild Life Warden.
Sea turtle conservation is about marine conservation. “I've seen people sitting next a turtle carcass without a care, but their reaction would be different if it were a dead tiger,” says Dr. Supraja.