The cool breeze ruffles the hair of thirty people standing around the hole in the ground. This is no ordinary hole, after all, there are ten torches trained on it and excavations have begun to reveal the treasures of the deep. Treasure hunting of this kind is a nightly affair for some people on the East and West Coasts of India. The treasures do not comprise of gold or diamonds but something equally if not more precious. After all, the sand here is alive, and night after night, between January and April, the sand bears children, some of the oldest the world has ever seen.
Turtles are called ‘living fossils’ and are believed to have originated before the Triassic period. The oldest and most primitive known turtle (Proganochelys quenstedi) dates to 220 million years ago. Yet their general body plan remains much the same even today. The turtles of today can be split into two groups, those that can retract their necks sideways and those that retract their necks straight in. The latter group includes both marine and freshwater species. Irrespective of where they live, turtles, like other reptiles are air-breathers and therefore cannot afford to lay their eggs in water. Instead they dig holes on river banks or in beach sand in order to deposit their eggs. These holes are liberally called nests and in the case of some sea-turtles, can contain up to 200 eggs.
Unfortunately most of the world’s turtle species, including all the marine species, are listed as endangered. These endangered marine turtles are world travelers that undertake long, cross-country migrations. This only complicates the efforts to protect them. Although many of their key threats have been identified and methods to prevent them have been discovered, enforcing their use is an issue in itself. For example the Turtle Excluder Device (TED) that is being effectively used in trawl-fishing nets in the U.S.A. is not effective at all in India. This is not a problem of structural design or cost, but rather a problem of mindset and economy. Although the use of TEDs is mandatory by law, enforcement of laws is a problem. The trawl boat association in Orissa, a state in India that harbors the largest population of the endangered Olive Ridley turtle, claims that the potential 5% loss of fish catch that accompanies the use of TEDs is a price they are not willing to pay. As fisheries decline off the Indian Coast, it is only becoming more and more difficult to convince people to bear this loss.
The conservationist’s approach therefore has been to shift focus. Instead of locking horns with local unions, the conservationists have spotlighted the hatchlings of this species and a number of local non-government organizations (NGO’s), run by anyone from traditional fishermen to schools and city-folk, have responded. Their aim is to protect hatchlings from the menace of human poaching, since turtle eggs are consumed, although turtle meat, for the most part, is not. Nest predation by stray dogs and hatchling disorientation due to artificial lighting along beaches are also important sources of hatchling mortality, which these organizations try to combat.
Yet, these threats pale in comparison to the more looming threats of loss of nesting beaches, both due to direct human interference as well as the larger and more threatening impacts of global warming. After the tsunami that hit the Indian coasts in 2006, a large part of the turtle nesting beaches in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, off the Coast of India, were washed away. Further, prime nesting beaches in Orissa that are part of a marine sanctuary are being threatened by tree planting experiments being carried out on beaches by none other than the forest department. This, unfortunately, is a product of ignorance, since the forest department has been placed in charge of marine sanctuaries without having been provided any training to handle non-forest systems.
But hardly any of these thoughts cross the minds of the people on the beach. The precious eggs are being relocated, into the safety of the hatchery. A few more hours of vigil and the sands will stir with the flippers of the newly emerging hatchlings. They will then be transported down to the high tide zone and escorted into the waves, moonlight and torches guiding their descent into the sea. Irrespective of the unions, politics or climate change; year after year, these dedicated individuals ensure that the ancient ritual of the prehistoric reptiles carries on. Of course there are problems, but something is being done, like it or not. Conservation at the grass roots level: isn’t this it?
DIVYA KARNAD is an ecologist and conservationist from Chennai, India.