Monday, January 3, 2011
Turtle Tales of Chennai
Express News Service
First Published : 13 Dec 2010 04:28:20 AM IST
CHENNAI: It is that time of the year when Olive Ridley turtles converge to the city’s coast for nesting. Chennai has an impressive record in turtle conservation. It all started in 1972, when renowned herpetologist and conservationist Romulus Whitaker took up the task of saving turtles. “We ran a small hatchery near the Cholamandal village. We did sea turtle conservation work for 10 years,” says Whitaker, Rom to all who know him. They had to stop in 1982 when the Forest Department took over conservation work of the protected sea turtle.
Rom says he found an interesting relationship between the turtles and fishermen during his conservation efforts. “Fishermen worshipped the turtle in a way. If a turtle crawled into their hut, they would feel honoured. In fact, they used to put wet sand on top of its shell and stick incense sticks on it. It was extremely funny to see these turtle crawling around with incense sticks on their back,” says Rom.
Students as Ridley saviours
Founded in 1987, the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) is Chennai’s oldest extant organisation involved in sea turtle conservation. Powered strictly by a force of student volunteers, SSTCN continues to keep its operations small and entirely subject to the dedication of its volunteers.
The group has even refused corporate funding and aims at keeping consumption to a minimum.
“We prefer to reuse stuff. We avoid buying the materials. Sometime we rely on relatives in the countryside to send us used gunny bags and other stuff that we utilise for constructing hatcheries”, says Akila.
What has surprised long-time SSTCN members most is continuous support they have received. “At first I was worried over whether we would run out of volunteers to do the conservation work. Over the years, I have learnt that my worries were completely baseless. We get a steady stream of students volunteering to work and that is heartening”, says V Arun, who has been active with SSTCN for over 13 years.
In fact, the dedication and the camaraderie run deep for those who have worked under the SSTCN banner. Many early members still keep in touch and contribute in whatever way they can, despite the fact that they live across the planet now.
Fishing villages involved
Starting in 2002, TREE Foundation spent years earning the trust of the fishing villages as well as the government. Now, it has a team of fishermen called the Kadal Aamai Pathukavalar (KAP) or the Sea Turtle Protection Force, manning its hatcheries and scouting the beaches.
Every fishing village from Neelangarai to Marakkanam has seen frantic activity by TREE Foundation personnel during the Olive Ridley nesting season. They now inform the organisation about developments, not only about turtles, but also of all other marine life.
Over time, it has been accorded permission by the Forest Department to conduct rescue, rehabilitation and recovery operations. It is authorised to conduct necropsies in partnership with the Veterinary College.
The organisation, led by Dr Supraja Dharini, sees active participation of student volunteers. Some of them are from the Veterinary College or Zoology students. TREE Foundation keeps record of all its work.
Fishermen working with the organisation have turned trainers, talking to fishing communities and Wildlife officials about sea turtle conservation and its methods.
An increasing number of fishing hamlets on the coast surrounding Chennai are being brought into the sea turtle conservation net. And orienting and training the fishermen of these villages in conservation activities has become an easier task. Especially after Pugalarasan and Ezhumalai started addressing the sessions.
The two fishermen have been volunteering with the TREE Foundation for eight years now and have learnt enough to talk conservation into their community in other villages. Better still, they have recently started addressing gatherings in English when necessary.
“It is easier for us to connect with our community. We know the lives of fishermen and the language they use. We can make them see the point behind conserving sea turtles”, says Pugalarasan, a fishermen from Periya Neelangarai.
They found that language was a barrier when they went to other States or for sea turtle conservation conferences. So they took training from TREE Foundation volunteers for making presentations in English.
“We are interacting with more and more conservationists who do not understand Tamil. Making our presentations in English really helps. We recently even addressed a gathering of officials of the Forest Department in English. It was a proud moment”, says Ezhumalai, a fisherman from Injambakkam.
The two say they want to get more familiar with the language to interact with foreign experts.
“When we address a session in Tamil, we are able to bring in anecdotal evidence to make out point effectively. But we are still not that comfortable with English. Often, we end up giving straight presentations and we stick to the script. I guess with a little more practice, we will become much better”, says Pugalarasan.
Currently, Pugalarasan and Ezhumalai are on a tour to the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh. They will also visit the Olive Ridley mass nesting sites in Orissa, before returning.
Conservation groups working along the Chennai coast to protect the Olive Ridley turtles are very happy with the support they received from State Forest Department. Officials have ensured that they have been given the requisite permissions. The department’s local functionaries show genuine interest in turtle conservation work, the conservationists say. But Chief Wildlife Warden and Principal Chief Conservator of Forests R Sundararaju is more pragmatic about the role of his department.
“It is the duty of the government to conserve and protect animals, through the Forest Department. That goal is important. Also, it becomes easier to achieve our goals when we work with a conservancy group that do good work”, says Sundararaju.
The Forest Department makes it a point to impart continued education to its personnel. It has organized workshops to educate its rangers and officials on a host of relevant subjects relating to conservation. Forest Department officials recently attended a workshop on turtle conservation as well.
Sundararaju feels training of this nature is yielding results. He points out that it is not possible for any one person to know everything about all animals. “Learning needs to happen every day. I just want to make sure training is imparted to all officials of the department”, he says.