A chance encounter can change lives. For Dr Supraja Dharini, Founder and Chairperson of TREE Foundation, it was a chance encounter with a sea turtle that changed hers. TREE Foundation, a trust for environmental education, conservation and community development, was founded in 2002 by Dr Supraja with the intention of protecting Olive Ridley turtles that swim across the mighty oceans for miles before landing on south-eastern Indian shores for their nesting. It is said that an Olive Ridley returns to the very same land on which it was born to lay its eggs.
Dr Supraja (56), who was recently honoured by the well-known American-based Explorers Club as one among its "50 People Changing the Worldâ€ť, calls it a great news for sea turtle conservation in India. "Receiving this prestigious award puts our country firmly on the conservation map and shows the world that we are making an effort to protect our marine heritage and wildlife. Being the first woman from south India is truly an honour,â€ť she says.
Dr Supraja is one among the 21 women who are part of this global list made up of biologists, archaeologists, educators and entrepreneurs whose impactful work inspires greater understanding of the world around us and also benefits the communities involved.
Holding a PhD in Indian Philosophy, Dr Supraja, who runs an art establishment called Kalakruti in Chennai, turned into a conservator of sea turtles and an environmental educator when she encountered a dead sea turtle on the beach. Going back to the day when it all began, Dr Supraja says she spotted a sea turtle that was lying on the sands from a distance during one of her morning walks on Chennaiâ€™s Neelankarai beach. The year was 2001. â€śI stayed back, not wanting to scare it. But it was only a little while later that I noticed it was actually dead,â€ť she says. Upon closer inspection, she was shocked to see that it had died because of its injuries.
â€śI then walked to the nearby fishing village and spoke to the fishermen about it, but for them it was not news. Idhellam sarva sadharanam, they said (this is a common occurrence) and I was deeply affected, hearing it,â€ť she continues. But what pushed Dr Supraja into action was a quote by Dr Jane Goodall, a world renowned conservationist and wildlife activist. â€śI had watched a documentary of hers and in it, she said 'each and every individual can make a difference'. I believed I could too,â€ť she tells TNM. Years later, Supraja would go on to meet and host Dr Jane during one of her trips to the country. On the camaraderie between the two, she says, â€śBetween Jane and me, we don't have to talk much. We can speak in silence. When youâ€™re deeply connected within, you donâ€™t need to speak. It is the love for the ocean that we have in common.â€ť
What followed was years of patient gatherings of people, spirited youngsters across villages in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, to form the Sea Turtle Protection Force. TREE Foundationâ€™s STPF now has 363 members from 222 fishing village communities located along Indiaâ€™s eastern coastline.
At first, in 2002, Dr Supraja invited young men from Periya Neelankarai fishing village in Chennai to take part in an environment workshop that was to be held at the Crocodile Bank. â€śThey showed great interest, first coining the term 'kadal aamai padhukavalargal' that turned into the Sea Turtle Protection Force. They offered to bring in children and we held the workshop once again with 17 men and 33 children for the very first time,â€ť she explains.
The movement slowly spread to neighbouring villages, and TREE Foundation was registered in October 2002. STPF was formed in five villages stretching across 13 kilometres â€” Periya Neelankarai, Injambakkam, Panaiyur, Nainaarkuppam, Uthandi and Kanaathur Reddykuppam â€” and they held their first patrol that season (nesting season falls between December and April every year), protecting 35 nests.
Over the years, TREE Foundation slowly and organically spread across fishing villages in Chennai, Kancheepuram, spilling over to Nellore (in 2008), Prakasam, Vizianagaram, Eluru, Srikakulam districts in Andhra Pradesh and then to Rishikulya in Orissa in 2011. In each of these districts, people volunteered upon learning about the plight of sea turtles and why it is important to protect them. â€śIn all of these villages, where languages are different, practices are different, we were able to explain the idea easily because those from the community showed the interest to come forward. I am only the initiator, the person behind the scenes. During workshops, the fishermen themselves explain the idea and raise awareness in their communities. Otherwise, STPF would not have been as successful as it is today,â€ť she says.
And each of these areas pose different threats for the Olive Ridley turtles. â€śIn Andhra, there are sloth bears. In Odisha, youâ€™ve got jackals and wild boars.â€ť She further speaks about the Yennadi tribe in Nellore who would trap the nesting turtles for their meat. â€śWhen I learnt about it at first, I wanted to bring STPF in Andhra too. With help from STPF members from Tamil Nadu, we were able to spread awareness here as well. And the fishing community here is unlike any other. Theyâ€™re deeply committed to the cause,â€ť she adds. The Yennadi tribe is now involved in conservation in the uninhabited islands in Eluru. â€śFamilies stay in tents for about five months and food and provisions are taken to them frequently. It is a very tough life,â€ť she adds.
According to Dr Supraja, the cooperation and support from the Forest Departments of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, the Indian Coast Guard and the Marine Police is of paramount importance to their programme. In each of these districts, the involvement of the Forest Department has resulted in the task force being most effective. â€śIn that sense, I would say the turning point for us was in 2006 when CK Shreedharan was appointed as Chief Wildlife Warden in Tamil Nadu. He was impressed with the work we were doing and announced that two members from each village will be given a stipend and ID card from the Forest Department,â€ť she says.
Dr Supraja continues, â€śIt then turned into a joint community based conservation programme, which gave the men recognition and pride. They were recognised by the Forest Department and we were also given permission to set up hatcheries. This was a turning point.â€ť
In addition to patrolling beaches during the nesting season, TREE Foundation is also involved in ghost net retrieval project along with the Indian Coast Guard and in educating school children and raising awareness about conservation in them.
Noting that there arenâ€™t many women who volunteer in patrolling and conservation activities by the sea, Dr Supraja adds, â€śDuring my early days, women would call me names because I spent too much time with the youths. Women would also not come for patrols. But I never let that deter me. I carried on with my work.â€ť
As someone who has spent close to two decades watching over sea turtles and their hatchlings, Supraja shares a memory with us that perhaps explains her deep-seated love for them. â€śI vividly remember watching a hatchling make its way to the ocean. It fell into someoneâ€™s footprint, it got entangled in someoneâ€™s discarded slipper and when it finally reached the tide, the waves first toppled it and by instinct, I rushed to help but stopped myself,â€ť Dr Supraja narrates.
â€śBut in a few seconds, it flipped, oriented itself and crawled into the big bad ocean. The determination, focus and confidence that it had to go into the big bad oceanâ€¦ Iâ€™m calling it that because we know the dangers awaiting the hatching as it enters the oceanâ€¦ but it is relentless in its pursuit. That little hatchling stayed in my mind. I often think about it when Iâ€™m on the brink of giving up,â€ť she concludes.