As the first rays of the morning sun kiss the Thaikadapuram beach in Kasaragod, a motley group in twos scours the sand for tell-tale tracks that will lead them to their target. In the feeble light, one of the volunteer units follows a flipper trail to a freshly-dug, well-concealed turtle nest in the sand.
Turtle eggs, more than 100 of them, are carefully transferred to buckets and taken to a hatchery where they are tagged and protected from predators and poachers. After a period of 45 to 60 days, the young turtles emerge from the eggs and the volunteers release them on the beach from where they head out to the sea.
The volunteers comprising college teachers, autorickshaw drivers, and fishermen represent ‘Naithal,’ a non-governmental organisation spearheading a campaign for turtle conservation in Kasaragod district.
The conservation group has mobilised volunteers from across the Kanhangad and Neeleswaram municipalities and the Padanna grama panchayat, home to the nesting grounds of the olive ridley turtle.
Guided by an uncanny homing instinct, sea turtles travel thousands of kilometres, returning to the same beach where they were born, to lay eggs in the sand. Five species of sea turtles, namely olive ridley, green turtle, hawksbill, loggerhead, and leatherback, were once known to visit the Kerala coast. But over the last few years, only the olive ridley has been reported from the State, and that too in diminishing numbers. During the nesting period from August to February, each turtle lays 75 to 200 eggs.
A. Biju Kumar, Head, Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, says the turtles migrating to Indian waters have declined mainly due to poaching for meat and eggs, habitat degradation, pollution, developmental activities along the coast, and trawling in coastal waters. In Kerala, mining of beach sand and the construction of seawalls along the coast has hampered the arrival of turtles.
Naithal has declared Kasaragod a ‘turtle-friendly' district and is leading a campaign to highlight the importance of sea turtles as indicators of the health of the ocean.
Acknowledging the work done by Naithal, the Kerala State Biodiversity Board (KSBB) has sanctioned an assistance of Rs.3,00,000 to the NGO for a turtle conservation project. KSBB member secretary K.P. Laladhas said the amount would be utilised mainly for creating a good hatchery and for awareness campaign.
P. Krishnan, district coordinator, KSBB, said sea walls and tourist resorts along the coast were a major deterrent for nesting turtles. “Despite our persistent pleas, the resorts located along the beach use bright lights for illumination, scaring away the turtles,” he said.
Oommen V. Oommen, chairman, KSBB, said the creation of a database on turtles migrating to the Kerala coast would provide a fillip to conservation efforts. He said local communities would have a key role in protecting turtle-nesting sites.