Until some years back, he would dig out the leathery, cricket-ball sized turtle eggs from their sand pits and use them to play cricket with his friends. He was not the only one doing so in the fishing village of Periya Neelangarai on the East Coast Road (ECR), a few kilometres from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Today, the young T.A. Pugazharasan is a turtle conservationist.
In fact, during the nesting season of the Olive Ridley turtles, from January extending up to May each year, if you head towards the Coromandel Coast at nightfall, you may find an eclectic bunch of people. Students and lungi-clad fishermen patrol the beach. Why? Because even though this species of sea turtle appear tough, they face multiple threats and needs protection.
The Olive Ridley turtle has a remarkable nesting characteristic. It always makes its way back to where it was born to lay its eggs. It reaches the spot, right down to the same 500 metre to one kilometre stretch. It lays the eggs before going back into the sea. The emerging hatchling continues this incredible migratory tradition. Nesting is a regular occurrence on the coasts of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Unfortunately, the turtles and turtle eggs are savaged by people, stray dogs and crows.
Plastic garbage strewn on the beach can choke the turtles. The lights from the nearby farmhouses and from vehicles plying on the ECR confuse them and lures them to linger on the roads where they get crushed by running vehicles.
The informal protection squads on the beaches as well as the Kadal Aamai Paadukaavalar (Sea Turtle Protection Force or STPF), which comprises over 165 fisher youth living along the Coromandel Coast, are working together to protect the vulnerable sea turtles.
But how is it that turtle conservation has become a priority for the citizens of Chennai and in its neighbouring towns? This can be credited by the advocacy of artist-conservationist, Dr. Supraja Dharini, the woman behind the “save the turtles” mission.
She has not only converted youngsters to love the sea turtle but has also created a sea change in the attitudes of the local community towards the turtles that inhabit the area.
In fact, since 2002, more than 44,654 hatchlings have been safely released into the sea. This is attributed by Dharini’s initiatives. She has helped remove tonnes of debris from the Chennai coast with the help of the Indian Coast Guard, National Institute of Ocean Technology, South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme and Loyola College. She has campaigned for the protection of sea turtles with thousands of school and college students in Tamil Nadu.
“There are many people who try to save the turtles, but I find Supraja Dharini’s efforts unique because she manages to bring together all stakeholders, from government ministries to local fisher folk,” says Shannon McDonnell, honorary coordinator for India for Roots and Shoots, an organisation founded by famous primatologist and conservation biologist Dr. Jane Goodall.
McDonell has been working with Dharini to spread conservation efforts to schools across India.
Dharini’s efforts have brought together a city youngster like Robin, who is preparing for his IAS exams, and fishermen like T.A. Pugazharasan, to work together for a common cause.
“I have been working with ‘madam’ for eight years to save the turtles. Now, I see a definite change in our fishing community. A year back, some fishermen used to chop off the flippers of turtles caught in their nets, because they didn’t want to cut their nets. Today, they gently set them free,” informs Pugazharasan.
From being a successful artist, she runs her own art studio “Kalakruti” which she had started in 1991 to becoming a saviour of turtles. It’s been an interesting transition for Dharini. It was a dead turtle she noticed during a walk on the Neelangarai shore that triggered the change.
The sight of the dead turtle brought back Jane Goodall’s words she had heard on a television programme, “Each and every individual can make a difference.”
“I decided that I would make a difference,” Dharini says.
Her first move was to go with the fishermen on their catamarans and trawlers to gauge what exactly created this pointless massacre. She discovered that fishing nets needed turtle extruders, a device attached to the net that allows turtles to escape from the net, leaving the fish behind. She significantly understood that awareness building amongst the fishing community is crucial. So she toured village after village, talking about how important turtles are for sustaining fish in the sea.
Once the fishing community started to take part with the protection schmen, it was time to get the youth involved. Youngsters in the villages like Periya Neelankarai, Injambakkam, Pannayur, Nayanarkuppam-Uthandi and Reddykuppam-Kanathur along the ECR were trained to identify places where turtles laid eggs. They gently retrieve them and place them in easily-built safe enclosures. The teenagers will guard them during their 48-day gestation period, and finally to safely lead the emerging hatchlings to the sea.
Dharini also set up the Trust for Environment, Education, Conservation and Community development Foundation (TREE) in October 2002. She now plans to start a marine biodiversity conservation research centre with a fully-equipped aquarium that would help create more bonding between humans and turtles.
“All sea turtles are listed as endangered. The TREE foundation works along the coasts of Chennai and Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with plans to expand the programme nationwide,” says Dharini, who is the founder of the Bay of Bengal Ecologists and Conservation Network (BEACON) as well.
The TREE Foundation functions with the support of its trustees and through donations. Some help comes from the government.
The good work done by Dharini over the years hasn’t gone unnoticed. She received the Whitley Associate Award for 2009-2010, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Award, Sea World and Bush Garden Conservation Award, and the Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species Award.
They are called as “The Gardeners of the Sea.” They help sea plants grow faster. For now, its survival rests on people like Dharini, her friends and her dedicated protection squads.