The Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network by Kartik Shanker
In 1971, a few dedicated wildlife enthusiasts began walking the beaches of Madras to document the status of and threats to sea turtles. Amongst these were S. Valliapan and Romulus Whitaker, the founder of both the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank. They were joined in 1974 by Satish Bhaskar, a pioneer field biologist who surveyed thousands of kilometres on foot, including most of India’s beaches, mainland and island, in search of sea turtles and their spoor.
The Early Years
In northern Tamil Nadu, nesting occurs primarily along a 50 km stretch from the mouth of the Adyar river, Madras, to Kalpakkam to the south. The first sea turtle hatchery was established in the backyard of one of the volunteers, under the auspices of the Madras Snake Park. A total of about 200 clutches were collected during the first 4 years. In 1977, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute became involved and established a hatchery for research at Kovalam till 1982. As the idea of sea turtle conservation and hatcheries became more fashionable, from 1982 to 1988, the Forest Department set up several hatcheries along the Tamil Nadu coast, three near Madras and two near Nagapattinam.
In the 1980s, ‘turtle walks’ for the public quickly they gained in popularity; at first they were organised mainly by the Madras office of Worldwide Fund for Nature (wwf), but a number of other smaller, local groups soon became involved. Often, the groups would collect eggs during their walks and relocate them at one of the Forest Department’s hatcheries. Some of the members of this informal group decided to constitute an organisation when the Forest Department closed down their hatcheries in 1988.
The Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) was formed, and established its first hatchery, in December 1988. Tito Chandy and Arif Razack were the original founders, and joined shortly thereafter by Tharani Selvam, Kartik Shanker, Yohan Thiruchelvam, and Tara Thiagarajan. Satish Bhaskar, one of India’s pioneering sea turtle biologists was based in Madras from 1988 to 1991 and mentored the students and worked for the SSTCN during the 1989-90 season. Others such as Romulus Whitaker and Harry Andrews of the Madras Crocodile Bank also provided support.
The SSTCN was initially organised and operated by students, aged 16 to 25. While a few ‘non – students’ (lawyers, biologists, conservationists, business professionals, etc.) advised, the leadership, organisation and manpower were principally from this age group. Once students finish courses, they routinely leave Madras after participating in or leading the organisation for two to three years, so the SSTCN has seen a high turnover of both membership and leadership.
V. Arun has been involved in SSTCN for the last 18 years and has been coordinating the walks for the last 13 years. He was a teacher in The School, KFI but later relocated with his family to Tiruvannamalai where he runs an afforestation and environment education program with a few friends. He travels every weekend to Chennai throughout the turtle season to conduct Turtle Walks.
Akila Balu joined the group in 2006 and works in SSTCN as fellow coordinator.
SSTCN’s activities include beach monitoring, hatchery management, protection of clutches left in the beach (‘in situ nests’), and education and awareness campaigns; the programme has continued from 1988 until present. Each season, the group establishes a hatchery at Neelangarai, and every night from end-December through mid-March, the same 7 km stretch of beach is patrolled. Some years, when there are enough volunteers, the patrolling extends an additional 5 to 10 km beyond Neelangarai to the north. Due to egg predation by feral dogs and people, most nests along this stretch are highly vulnerable.
Consequently, most egg clutches that can be found are relocated to the hatchery. At the hatchery, nests are monitored and a few days prior to expected emergence of hatchlings, they are enclosed with plastic or thatch baskets, to restrain the hatchlings from crawling on to the beach, where chances of predation are high. Hatchlings are released at the edge of the sea the same night of emergence, and the respective nests are excavated to evaluate hatching success.
Experiments with nest spacing and shading have been conducted to improve hatching success, which has remained over 80% during most years since 1992 (Shanker 1995, 2003). Average densities on the beach range from 10 – 15 nests with eggs per km, and the group has collected between 50 and 200 clutches per year (now totalling some 120,000 eggs) and released about 80,000 hatchlings over the past 15 years (Shanker 2003). Since 1988, the sstcn has also been conducting education and awareness programs.
Every weekend during the season, members of the general public and students from Madras accompany the SSTCN on ‘turtle walks’ when they are educated about sea turtles and conservation.
Why we do this a question that has often provoked heated debate both within and outside the group is the utility of such hard work and dedication just to release a few thousand hatchlings each year. This result comes after much effort in organisation, long nights walking beaches and never seeing a turtle, and sacrifices to time that could be otherwise spent in studies, with family, or in more conventional hobbies, not to mention the expenses often incurred to each participating student. When the problems that face the hatchling are seemingly insurmountable – it has been suggested that one in 1,000 or less survive to reach maturity – it is often questioned if all the effort is really helping the turtles. SSTCN’s success lies in its role as an outreach program rather than strictly as a wildlife conservation program (something that many members of the group, but not all, do realise).
Thanks to the students’ network, thousands of people in the Madras area have been on a turtle walk; many have seen hatchlings – which are indisputably amongst the most charismatic ambassadors of conservation, and a few have even had the fortune of seeing a nesting olive ridley. Many student members have been motivated to pursue careers in ecology, ecotourism, wildlife management and conservation.
Even if they are doomed, and sea turtles on the Madras coast do not survive the coastal development, fisheries and other threats, these turtles (and hatchlings) still help conservation through their singular contribution to education and outreach programmes.
They help motivate and shape young ecologists and conservationists who might go on to save turtles or other species of wildlife elsewhere. Though nesting along the Madras coast has been extremely low in some years (2.5 nests/ km), there does not appear to have been an overall decline over the last fifteen years. While the long term conservation program may have prevented a drastic decline thus far, the intensity of threats has increased. The main threat to adult sea turtles along much of the Indian coast is fishery related mortality, with about 10 – 20 dead ridleys washed ashore every season on the northern coast of Tamil Nadu. Fishing villages dot the entire coastline of the state, and opportunistic egg poaching by members of the fishing community and other communities living on the coast, as well as depredation by feral dogs are major problems.
Furthermore, as residential, middle class colonies spread along the coast, beachfront lighting and subsequent disorientation of hatchlings is becoming a serious problem along a greater stretch of this coast each year.