Shyamala Rao - Artist
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Welcome to my blog. This will be an ongoing blog in which I will discuss things I am working on, as well as my thoughts on wildlife conservation. Please come back to this page regularly, as I will update it from time to time.

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January 21, 2010

Conservation, Chennai Style

Filed under: Wildlife — shyamala @ 9:01 pm

Dear Readers: This is an extended version of an article found on the Art For Conservation blog.

This story began a couple of years ago when I watched a National Geographic special on Sea Turtles. It was captivating. These gentle sea faring reptiles have been around on the planet considerably longer than humans, one hundred million years or more. The narrator of the show reported that the sea turtle population had declined 80% in the last decade. That triggered a sharp sense of sadness in me,” Oh no, not another species at risk of extinction”. For the next several days little snippets of information from the show came to mind at random moments. Apparently the smallest of the sea turtles were the Olive Ridleys and they were found in tropical regions of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The females came ashore and deposited eggs in the nesting grounds called ‘arribadas’ or ‘arribazones’. They could be seen at nesting time along the shores of Mexico to Columbia, occasionally the South Western shores of the US, Eastern India to Sri Lanka and Surinam to French Guyana. I toyed with the idea of going to Mexico to see the nesting sites. Then I became preoccupied with other plans and this idea slipped into some recess of my mind. Other trips and other considerations overtook me.

One of the trips was to India. I was heading on a trip to Chennai for a short visit to attend a wedding. Chennai, that city on the East coast of India with a lovely natural harbor and the long, gently undulating velvety beaches, would, that the city also enjoyed salubrious weather. But then one can’t have everything, can one? I was going to engage in the usual round of visiting friends and relatives, eating out, shopping for friends back in the US and would relish all of it. A part of me was holding out for a little bit of ‘lagniappe’. That little something extra which would make this humdrum holiday into something special.

I had a pretty good idea what could make this trip memorable. I was nursing a slender ray of hope that this time around I would catch a glimpse of some fabulous tropical flora or fauna. An unusual tree in full efflorescence, a great heron in graceful flight or a delicate conch shell, whole and unblemished on some stretch of beach, which, when picked up and held to the ear would sound out the lapping of the water on to the sandy shores. Amazing, how optimistic the heart can be, while the head says “Have a shred of sense, what flora or fauna could possibly survive in this blistering concrete jungle”.

Things wished for, sufficiently strongly, do, sometimes manifest. It just “washed up to my feet”, as Kafka would say. A former schoolmate mumbled “You know, we could take a Turtle Walk”. I stopped dead in my tracks. Had I inadvertently timed my visit to coincide with the Olive Ridley Conservation season? Yippee! All that my friend knew about the turtle walks was that on Fridays and Saturdays the public were permitted to join the “scouts” in the nightly vigil. The walks began at Velangeri beach around midnight and ended at Besant Nagar beach. On Friday night, excited and a little scared, we headed out to Besant Nagar and parked. Neither of us had any idea as to how safe it was for the two of us gals to be at the beach around midnight. Oh well, if we were risking life and limb, it was in search of adventure and experience. We hailed one of those noisy, polluting three wheelers, the ubiquitous phut-phuts and the driver balked at going all the way to Velangeri. He took us halfway and handed us to another phut-phut driver and off we roared towards Velangeri. We flagged a pedestrian as we approached the beach and enquired if he knew where the Turtle Walk started. “Sure”, he replied, “I am one of the Scouts”. We made room for him in our vehicle and took off once more. At Velangeri beach there were at least 50 people gathered for the turtle walk. All of them seemed so young, all under 30 years of age. They were chatting amiably and looking relaxed. We were introduced to Anil, Akila and Aadit. They were absolutely charming and happy to impart information. Anil was the leader of the Turtle Walk that evening. He belonged to the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Council. Akila worked for the World Wildlife Fund and was one of the scouts. Aadit and a host of others were also scouts.

We sat down in a circle, moonlight bathing us in a silvery glow with a cool breeze wafting in from the bay. Anil educated the newcomers on Olive Ridley Sea Turtles and on the ground rules for the walk. The Olive Ridley which is the smallest of the Sea Turtles grows to 2 to 2 ½ feet in length. The turtles weigh 80 to 100 pounds when full grown. They live 60 to 80 years. Their nesting season is between January and April. At high tide, the female turtles come to the shore, form a nest in the sand, deposit 50 to 100 eggs, cover the nest up and slide back to the water and go away forever. The eggs hatch in 45 to 60 days. The hatchlings are small, fragile and vulnerable and do not yet have a sense of smell. They follow the light and try to get to the water and swim away. Anil told us that for this conservation program in Chennai the 30 kilometer stretch of beach has been divided into 7 kilometer segments and scouts patrol their segment every night from January to April. The eggs are harvested from their nests and relocated eggs to a hatchery. When the hatchlings emerge they are hand carried to the water.

With the talk over and the ground rules for that evening’s turtle walk delineated we set off on our walk, dutifully staying several feet behind the scouts. It was past midnight. High tide was receding. Less than 15 minutes into the walk, Aadit found tracks of a turtle. I peered around and saw nothing. No tracks. No nest. Nothing. Nada. No one else could see anything either. Then Aadit pointed to the marks on the sand showing the path taken by the female turtle heading back to the ocean after having made her nest and deposited the eggs. Once the tracks were identified it was easier to tell the path this female sea turtle had taken. Aadit directed us to the nest and we watched him scoop out 58 eggs. They were delicate, fragile, cream coloured and spongy to touch. The eggs, Anil reminded us had to be placed in the hatchery within 3 ½ hours of being laid. After that they formed their hard shells and cannot be handled any further. Barely 15 minutes into the walk and we had seen the first nest. Wow!

We resumed the walk and kept at it till 5 a.m. We saw 2 more nests with 70 and 120 eggs each. Thence to the hatchery. We watched as the scouts, cautiously and carefully, placed the eggs into nests fashioned by human hands. In 45 to 60 days there would be a new generation of hatchlings. Gentle human hands would be carrying the hatchlings to the water. God willing every one of them will survive. In seven to fifteen years when the females mature they will return to the same stretch of beach to deposit their own eggs. The baton will have passed to the next generation with that event. In the same way it has been for the 150 million years that sea turtles have been swimming in our tropical oceans. The big picture in conservation of species can be crushingly depressing but these students have found the answer. Choose a species, narrow the focus until you can define a technique of intervention and work like the dickens, year after year, just as these students have done for the past 21 years. “It will all add up and make a difference,” said Anil. “From your mouth to God’s ear”, I prayed silently. I had got my “lagniappe.” My visit to Chennai had been transformed from the ordinary to the sublime.

1 Comment »

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