An Olive Ridley turtle with three flippers moves slowly towards the Chennai coast to lay her eggs. She digs 12 holes, but none is big enough to accommodate her eggs. Seeing her obvious distress, volunteers of the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network step in, helping her dig a hole and lay her eggs.
More importantly, after the turtles have laid their eggs and gone, these volunteers painstakingly collect the eggs, hatch them and release the hatchlings back into the sea. “We have tracked about 50 nests and collected 500 to 600 turtle eggs this season,” says Shravan Krishnan, a volunteer at Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN).
The Olive Ridley turtles that come to nest on the Chennai coast each January are desperately in need of the help. Although the most abundant of the sea turtle species, Olive Ridley numbers have been alarmingly declining in recent years. While the turtles are killed for their meat and the eggs harvested, the biggest threat they face is of adult turtles being accidentally caught in the fishing nets of trawlers.
“In 2016, about 80 to 90 turtles died, but the nesting numbers were also low last year. In 2015, about 350 Olive Ridley turtles died. This year, we are halfway through the season and already about 184 have died. The deaths may surpass 350 this year," says Shravan.
Image credit: Shravan Krishnan
Shravan blames these high numbers of death squarely on illegal fishing practices. “The fishermen do not follow the rules. The fisheries department has banned fishing within a radius of five nautical miles (9.3km) and also asked fishermen to include turtle excluder device (TED) in their nets,” he says, pointing out that such rules are rarely observed properly.
Added to this is the threat faced by the eggs themselves. Between predators eating eggs, human activity disrupting the hatching process, traders taking away eggs for sale as food, and climate changes, the numbers of hatchlings from each nesting is also falling. This is why the SSCTN’s process of hatching turtles in hatcheries and releasing them into the ocean plays a crucial role in keeping turtle numbers up.
The SSCTN has been carrying out their annual patrols for the last 28 years, determined to ensure that the Olive Ridley turtle does not pass away into extinction. Turtle conservation on the Chennai coast began in 1971, when a few dedicated wildlife enthusiasts began walking the beaches of Madras to document the status of and threats to sea turtles and were later joined by many enthusiasts to protect turtles. In 1988 The Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network was formed in 1988 with mainly students. They also established their first hatchery in the same year. It began in 1971
Together with the Forest Department, the SSCTN patrols 14 kilometres of coastline, from Neelankarai to Besant Nagar and from Foreshore Estate to Napier Bridge in Chennai. On hand for this task, the organisation has a total of 30 volunteers. “On weekdays, it’s just the volunteers on patrol. On Fridays and Saturdays, we take families and others along with us on patrol, for turtle walks,” explains Shravan.
The start of the year is a busy time for the group, since the nesting season begins in January. “In September and October, the mating starts and in January, the female turtles come to lay eggs. The peak nesting happens in mid-February. After nesting, the eggs are kept in hatcheries and within 45 to 60 days the hatchlings are released into the sea,” says Shravan.
Image: Shravan Krishnan
Conducting the patrols is a difficult and time-consuming task, and has to be done late in the night and in the early morning hours. However, says Shravan, thanks to the participation of the forest department, the patrols have become more successful.
“The turtles start nesting at around 11pm. We patrol at midnight and the forest department patrols at around 3am. The next day, they patrol at 12am and we patrol around 3am. Now, as the forest department has also joined, we are able to collect almost all the eggs from the nests,” Shravan says.
This year, however, their patrols have also been very rewarding, since the numbers of turtles coming to nest on the Chennai coast are higher. Shravan says, “In the last few days, we have found many nests. The Aribadda (mass nesting) of Olive Ridley turtle is currently occurring in Odisha, in which thousands of turtles’ nest together. So, at such times, the numbers of nesting turtles increases in other nearby places too. One day, we found about 12 nests on the Besant Nagar stretch and 10 on the Marina Beach stretch.”
The recent oil spill near Chennai has also inadvertently contributed to a drop in turtle deaths in fishing nets, says Shravan. “The deaths have come down a bit, we had found about 154 dead turtles before the oil spill. But fishermen are not going out to fish due to the oil spill, and this has helped in reducing the mortality of adult turtles.”