Turtle Story by Kartik Shanker
Under cover of darkness, baby olive ridley turtles hatch from sun warmed eggs on remote beaches. One of them, the little hatchling who is the narrator of our story, is delighted to make it across the beach and into the ocean without losing her way or being captured by predators.But can our little olive ridley survive the dangers of the ocean? Will she make it past the deadly sharks and the terrible fishing nets and reach adulthood? Will she ever have the pleasure of laying her own brood of eggs ?Find out in this charming life story of an olive ridley turtle, and meet several other interesting creatures along the way..
Riddle of the Ridley by Shekar Dattatri
The ‘arribada’ or arrival (in Spanish) of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles on some beaches of Orissa is one of nature’s amazing spectacles. Every year, thousands of ridleys arrive in an orchestrated synchrony to nest on the beaches in Orissa, and one of the only three beaches where the arribada occurs. The book meant for eight-year-olds works equally well with adults briefly going through the life of sea turtles and the threats faced by the species in Orissa particularly. On a positive note, it goes on to talk about the individuals and organisations that have been doggedly working towards the protection of this species. Through unique photographs, ridley facts, and a narrative born out of firsthand experience, award-winning wildlife film-maker Shekar Dattatri makes an impassioned plea to keep the beaches safe and free for the olive ridley…
A story of “Tanu”
Developed by Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), A story of “Tanu” is a firsthand experience of “Tanu” and his family of life at sea and the many dangers it is imperiled with. Tanu, a sea turtle from the Andaman sea, discovers the dangers of fishing and trawl nets in the open cean. After a close call he learns how TEDs can save his family. The book may be a bit sketchy, and misleading in terms of facts and leaves room for much improvement.
Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter
The Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter was initiated to provide a forum for exchange of information on seaturtle biology and conservation, management and education and awareness activities in the Indian subcontinent, Indian Ocean region and South/Southeast Asia. The newsletter also intends to cover related aspects such as coastal zone management, fisheries and marine biology.The newsletter is distributed free of cost to a network of government and non-government organisations and individuals in the region. All articles are also freely available in PDF and HTML formats on the website. Readers can submit names and addresses of individuals, NGOs, research institutions, schools and colleges etc.
Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter – Issue 24
INTERESTING OBSERVATIONS ON SEA TURTLES FROM THE CHENNAI COAST OF INDIA IN 2016
ARUN V1, # & ADHITH SWAMINATHAN1,2
1Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
2Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore, Karnataka, India
This season (January to April 2016) was marked by the stranding of juvenile turtles of sizes that are uncommon along the coast of Chennai, India. Two olive ridley, one green, and one hawksbill turtle (Table 1) were observed stranded between the months of February and May in the 7km stretch of beach from Neelankarai to the Adyar River estuary that is patrolled daily during the nesting season. Three of the four stranded turtles were dead when found. The olive ridley turtle found on 27 February 2016 was barely alive and coated with a greasy material. The turtle was taken to the TREE Foundation rescue centre at Neelangarai, Chennai, for treatment, where it later died despite efforts to resuscitate it. The green turtle found on 17 May 2016 was observed by one of the authors during a casual walk on the beach after the nesting season had ended.
There is limited information available about the juvenile life stage of olive ridley turtles as they are completely oceanic (Bolten, 2002), therefore these observations generated much interest. In the last decade, there have been several reports in the local media and anecdotal observations of juvenile olive ridley, hawksbill and green turtles being stranded and entangled in fishing nets (Nina Simon, 2010; Frederick, 2011; Special Correspondent, 2011; Oppili, 2015; Special Correspondent, 2016). However, there are no detailed reports on the size of these turtles and, therefore, the term juvenile could have been inappropriately applied.
During an organized public walk on 26 March 2016, an olive ridley turtle (CCL- 63cm, CCW- 62cm) was observed making a body pit, digging a nest cavity, and camouflaging the site. Care was taken to not disturb the turtle during the entire duration of the nesting process. Once the turtle returned to the sea, the volunteers probed the sand to relocate the nest to a hatchery. However, only a well-formed nest chamber was observed with no eggs. The entire camouflaged area was dug up and searched thoroughly for two hours. It was then concluded that it was a pseudonesting event. This was the first observation of such a phenomenon in Chennai, although Swaminathan & John (2011) have reported similar behaviour in olive ridley turtles at Rushikulya, Orissa. Such behaviour is not uncommon in primigravid turtles (those laying their first clutch) and may be due to limited oviductal responsiveness to hormonal stimuli and/or motility at the first nesting attempt (Phillott, pers.comm.).
Bolten, A. B. 2002. Variation in sea turtle life history patterns: Neritic vs oceanic developmental stages. In: The Biology of Sea Turtles, Volume II. (eds. Lutz, P.L., J.A. Musick & J. Wyneken). Pp 243-257. CRC Press, Boca Raton, USA.
Frederick, P. 2011 (June 16th). Ridleys! Believe it or not. The Hindu. Retrieved from: http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/ridleys-believe-it-or-not/article2110163.ece.
Oppili, P. 2015 (August 23rd). Entangled green turtle rescued, released in to sea off Chennai coast. The Times of India. Retrieved from: http://timesofindia.com/city/chennai/Entangled-green-turtle-rescued-released-in-to-sea-off-Chennai-coast/articleshow/48642413.cms.
Simon, N. 2010 (September 1). Greenie goes home. The Hindu. Retrieved from: http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/nxg/greenie-goes-home/article607237.ece.
Special Correspondent. 2011 (March 11). Sea turtles rescued. The Hindu. Retrieved from: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/sea-turtles-rescued/article1528211.ece.
Special Correspondent. 2016 (April 24th). Two stranded green turtles rehabilitated, released into sea. The New Indian Express. Retrieved from: http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/chennai/Two-Stranded-Green-Turtles-Rehabilitated-Released-into-Sea/2016/04/24/article3397245.ece.
Swaminathan, A. & S. John. 2011. Pseudonesting behaviour by the olive ridley sea turtle Lepidochelys olivacea (Eschscholtz, 1829) during mass nesting at Rushikulya, Orissa, India. Herpetology Notes 4: 225-227.
DIARY OF THE SSTCN CHENNAI TURTLE SEASON JANUARY – APRIL 2016
Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network, Chennai, Tamil Nadu
As the Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) looks back at the season just gone by in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, the primary feeling is that it was a muted one and also shorter as it ended a couple of weeks earlier than usual. In comparison, the last few years had been big, both in terms of the number of nests and in the number of dead turtles encountered! In one of our early walks this season, a fisherman told us that they were spotting many dead turtles in the sea and it would not be long before these washed ashore. We counted more than 300 stranded and dead turtles in the 2015 season and hoped not to experience another such year. Fortunately, we encountered only 85 dead adult turtles this season. While it is still a big number, it was only a third of the number of dead turtles found in the last few years. However, we also found far fewer nests, suggesting fewer nesting olive ridley turtles than in 2015.
Number of nests
We have been averaging around 100 nests per season in our southern stretch of beach, extending from Neelangarai to the Adyar River, close to the Besant Nagar beach. This year we found only 51 nests on this stretch. In our northern stretch of beach extending from Adyar River Creek to the Cooum River, popularly referred as the Marina Beach, we found around 110 nests where we usually find between 150 and 180. In all, we ended the season with 175 nests, 75 fewer than last year and 73 less than 2014. All the nests were relocated, 101 into the two SSTCN hatcheries and 74 to the Forest Department hatchery. The two SSTCN hatcheries are set up on either side of the Adyar estuary, one to cover Besant Nagar stretch and the other to cover the Marina beach. The Forest Department hatchery was set up about 50 meters from the SSTCN hatchery on the Besant Nagar side.
Working with the Forest Department
The Forest Department and SSTCN have been co-patrolling these beaches for the past two years. We tried patrolling at different hours of the night to maximise nest collection last year, but that resulted in confusion between the two organisations. This year we divided the northern stretch into two parts and each did one stretch with the other providing back up support when required. This arrangement worked better as there was no confusion or overlap in terms of time. The Forest Department hatchery was built close to ours so that volunteers and care takers could monitor and care for nests relocated into both structures.
New walk timings
Over the last twenty years we have been delaying the time of our patrols to later and later in the night. This year we started patrols of both the northern and southern stretches around 3am. As Marina Beach is relatively short in length, the volunteers walked back and forth to cover the stretch more than once each night. Besant Nagar is a longer beach, so leaving at 3am just about gave enough time to cover the stretch and finish by day break, especially on nights with multiple nests.
Turtle walks with the public
SSTCN turtle walks have become one of the star attractions of Chennai. As the walks are mentioned on Trip Advisor there is always interest throughout the year. During the turtle nesting season, we struggle to maintain the crowds to a manageable number (between 50 and 75 people). SSTCN decided some years ago to focus on walks for students of schools and colleges and individuals and families, but not corporate groups.
Despite having a registration procedure through email, people often join the walks without registering and at any time. We feel that people’s sense of entitlement has increased over the years, with some turning aggressive when they are denied a place on the walk, and are looking for a way to resolve this. However, we had some very good pre-walk discussions this year, often stretching from 11.30 to 1.30 am or even 2 am before the walk commenced. For the past few years we have been briefing the groups in both Tamil and English. When school groups come we brief them separately. On such days we have three different groups being briefed; roups are divided according to age and language as some prefer Tamil and some are English speakers. Attitudes, questions and interests often differ between these groups. The talks were anchored primarily by Arun V, Harish N.V. and Akila Balu. This year they drew a lot of inspiration for the talks from the book “Hope Beneath Our Feet”, edited by Martin Keogh, a compilation of environmental articles by practising environmentalists and ecologists.
At the hatchery
Similar to the public walks, the hatchery too draws hundreds of visitors – mostly families with young children. Shravan Krishnan, a long term volunteer, has ably anchored this activity for many years now. School groups and families visit the hatchery in the evenings during the turtle hatching months between March and early May and volunteers like Shravan interact with the crowds. They then watch hatchlings being released on the beach and entering the sea.
The hatchery is monitored around the clock to check for emerging hatchlings by a group of young volunteers. Our hatchery management has steadily improved with many volunteers feeling responsible. For example, this season we had an enthusiastic volunteer Gheshna Rao who could be depended on to be at the hatchery every evening to release hatchlings, excavate nests and record relevant data. She will be sorely missed in the coming season as she has gone to Mumbai for higher studies.
We had a low hatching success this year compared to other years, with poor hatching success in the first few nests and later nests potentially impacted by the high heat and low rain this summer. We ended the season with 8,907 hatchlings (8,741 from nests in the hatchery and 166 from nests on the beach) from 101 nests (excluding 75 nests from the Forest Department hatchery) with an overall emergence success rate of 78.9%.
Our community partners
One of the most pleasant memories of this season is our partnership with the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC). It started with a conversation with the founder Peter Van Giet when we told them that turtle walking was a very lonely activity with only two people walking together on most nights. He promised help, and Vinodh Sundar a CTC member, patiently coordinated CTC trekkers to join us almost every week night.
This year the beaches of Chennai were unbelievably filthy, with tons of garbage washed ashore after the Chennai floods so there was virtually no place for the turtles to nest. CTC organized clean ups, (including one as we built the hatchery) every weekend for several weeks before the beaches became nesting friendly again.
The court case against the fisheries department
Last year, a judge in the Madras High Court filed a suo moto case against the Fisheries Department after seeing a report in the Times of India about the large number of dead turtles that season. Stake-holders involved in sea turtle conservation, including the Fisheries Department, Forestry Department and NGO’s, were asked to prepare an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) and implement it to ensure a reduction in the number of turtles drowning in fishing nets.
Wildlife film maker Shekar Dattatri was appointed to independently audit the preparation and implementation of the SOP of the Fisheries Department and his report was submitted to the court in July 2016. After holding a stakeholders’ meeting, a compliance report was submitted by the Fisheries Department to the Hon’ble High Court of Madras on 11th August 2016.
A Government Order was passed on September 27th 2016 prohibiting mechanised boats from entering within 5 nautical miles of the shore during sea turtle migrating and nesting season from January up to April. The GO had major deficiencies: it included country craft in the 5 nautical miles ban which will greatly affect artisanal fishermen; it stated that the seasonal ban should be between January and April whereas it should actually be from November to March so as to include turtle migrating months; and it omitted skate/ray nets which cause high turtle mortality, from the ban. Requests were made by SSTCN and members of Dakshin as well as Tree Foundation to make corrections in the GO. It is hoped that these changes will be effected.
Turtle conservationists have also taken the discussion to the public by writing in newspapers both in English and Tamil.
Overall, we feel it was a positive season though a muted one. Many new volunteers joined us. People are much more aware of environmental issues as reflected in the deep conversations we had with them.
Our relationship with the fishing community members too has grown over the years. They have respect for our commitment and extend support in many ways. This year saw even greater participation from the fishing community members. However, we run the risk of losing this long-cultivated relationship due to the verdict in the court case due to our portrayal as the ones opposing fishing in coastal waters. This is unfortunate, as we have always been supportive of traditional fishing. Currently we are waiting for a revision of the order which will allow small scale traditional fishermen to continue fishing in near-shore waters, as it is difficult to imagine turtle conservation without their participation.
We are also excited by the upcoming Cetacean study where we are planning to collect data and tissue samples of stranded marine mammals. This study is being done under the guidance of Dipani Sutaria and Rahul Muralidharan.
Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter – Issue 21
SSTCN YEAR 26 – LOOKING BACK AT THE SEASON GONE BY
Co-ordinator, Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network, D.P.Nagar, Kotturpuram, Chennai, India
In 26 years of the history of the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network, the last few years really stand out! Though there have been a few outstanding years here and there in terms of nesting abundance, the combined count of hatchlings released over the last 4 years, which is more than 80,000, surpasses the combined release from the 15 years prior.
There are two reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, four years ago, we started monitoring the popular Marina Beach, north of the Adyar River. Previously, we had only monitored the more secluded 7 to 10 km south of this river mouth. We had always assumed that since Marina Beach was a well known commercial attraction, with a lot of human activity and disturbance, sea turtles would not nest there. Also, with limited human resources, we were only just able to manage the stretch we had monitored previously.
Secondly, there does appear to be an increase in the number of turtles that are congregating and nesting on these beaches. While the reasons are unclear, it could relate to the partial or total destruction of beaches just north of Chennai due to industrial activity, as a result of which turtles which used to nest on those beaches have shifted south. It could also be a result of an overall increase in the nesting turtle population along the Coromandel coast.
Ominous Start To 2014
All four nesting seasons began distressingly, with 50-60 dead turtles washing ashore within the first few weeks, all likely drowned in trawl nets. In several districts, necropsies were performed on these turtles and the cause of death was confirmed as drowning. In Cuddalore district alone, 30 turtles were examined, and same cause of death was attributed to all of them. By the end of each of the last four nesting seasons, the number of dead turtles was greater than 200.
In 2013, SSTCN petitioned the Chief Minister’s “Special Cell” asking for the Fisheries Department to ensure that trawlers not enter near shore waters and also to make it compulsory for trawlers to use TEDs during turtle season, but no action appeared to have been taken. This year, the vernacular press publicised the turtle mortality, but unfortunately targeted the Forest Department for inaction. The Forest Department are not directly culpable, as they do not have authority over the trawlers. The Fisheries Department is the regulating authority and has not, so far, taken any action. As a consequence of media attention, the Forest Department buried the turtles.
By the third week of January, our dead turtle count was already 120 and we had barely collected any nests. Though the dead turtle count kept mounting, we began to find a few nests and by the second week of February, there was a sharp decline in the number of dead turtles and the number of nests began to increase, a trend we have observed in each of the last few years. This might be related to when and where fishing occurs and the movement patterns of the turtles. January to March is peak season for fishing, and there has been an increase in the number of registered trawlers in recent years.
The Peak Season In 2014
Peak nesting occurred in February, as usual, with 120 nests, compared to 48 nests in January. On 10th February alone, we found 23 nests over 13 km. This may be compared to years where we found less than 20 nests in the entire season. The patrolling started around midnight as usual and went on till around 8am. The original two volunteers ran out of cloth bags to collect eggs and ran out of time as they had to get to work early in the morning. They were replaced by two other volunteers who went on to work till 8am. Our Marina hatchery watchman, Kumar, was active throughout, personally having found 5 nests and relocated 10, and was exhausted by the morning. The actual count would have been 26 but they couldn’t find 3 nests, despite searching for quite some time! We need to relocate every nest as they are unsafe left behind due to the powerful lights on the beach, presence of stray dogs and also due to incidental poaching.
All our volunteers are special. They compromise a night’s sleep every time they help monitor the beach. Many of them attend college the next day or go to work. But one person stands out over the others in the last three years. Last season, Nishanth personally collected 74 nests out of a total of 256. This year, he walked the beach on 66 out of a possible 100 nights and collected 78 nests. When he could not be present, he arranged for one of his many friends to take his place. He has already started a trust to carry out environmental education and conservation work in his locality. His team has initiated a programme to stop the use of plastic bags in their neighbourhood.
They collect pieces of discarded cloth from tailor shops and use this to stitch cloth bags which they give to shops to use instead of plastic bags. This project has effectively reduced the use of plastic bags in his suburb. There is more… Nishanth is also a volunteer with Blue Cross and is called all over the city to rescue snakes and animals which have fallen into wells etc. We were all overawed one night when we learnt that he had travelled 150 km that day to rescue 5 snakes, 3 of them cobras, and then had rushed to join us for beach monitoring. He has rescued more than 100 animals, some of these in spectacular fashion. Nishanth has just graduated with an engineering degree this year, and we are hoping that he will continue to work with us.
One of the key reasons for our success at managing the beach monitoring ‘turtle walks’ over the last four years has been the availability of one full time volunteer every year. This volunteer is willing to walk 6/7 days a week through the season and go to the hatchery whenever needed. This year’s full time volunteer was John, an engineer by qualification who had worked in the IT industry before quitting. He was deeply troubled with the state of the environment and wanted to be a part of the solution in some way. He had volunteered in our forestation project in Thiruvannamalai, and we suggested that he would be more useful during these months in Chennai by volunteering for the turtle walks. He readily agreed to this and moved to Chennai. He was offered free accommodation in our activist friend Nityanand Jayaraman’s office. John walked through the season with barely any breaks. We suggested that he skip the weekend walks as there were enough of us to manage, but he enjoyed interacting with the public about their perception of the environmental situation and ways to address it. The night that we located 23 nests, John had walked the entire southern stretch which is 8 km long, and then, hearing about the struggle in Marina beach, immediately went there to help and found 4 more nests! His help in monitoring the hatcheries too was invaluable. He is immensely talented and has had theatre experience and has now signed up with a travelling theatre group which is committed to creating awareness of environmental issues through the medium of theatre.
One of the unique features of SSTCN is that it offers an opportunity for youngsters to participate and get involved in the field of conservation. While it was John this year, it was a young chartered accountant, Raghuraman, last year, who had committed to working with us the entire season. The year before that, Karthikeyan, an environmental journalist had done the same. All the youngsters walking the Marina stretch have a very kind mentor, who guides them, inspires them and walks with them. ‘Lakshmi anna’ (elder brother), as they call him, has walked 9 seasons. If not for these dedicated youngsters, it would not be possible for us to manage the monitoring and maintenance of the hatchery.
Working With The Forest Department
After a long hiatus, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department has begun direct participation in turtle conservation from this year. They have received funds from the Japanese government under the aegis of TBGP (Tamil Nadu Biodiversity Conservation and Greening Project). As a part of this, we were asked to conduct a survey of Cuddalore and Chennai districts and come up with a Species Conservation Action Plan (SCAP) for the two districts.
We did the Cuddalore survey, on foot, in June with many volunteers. We found some undisturbed, pristine beaches with lots of mangroves, but even on these beaches we found many dead turtles. We also found the presence of industry everywhere, threatening the future of marine ecosystems through unmitigated pollution. We found evidence of severe beach erosion due to the wharfs, sea walls etc. built on the beaches extending into the sea. In many places there was only ten metres of beach available with the sea having ingressed more than 150 metres.
The forest department set up a hatchery alongside ours and we initially monitored the beach together as our volunteers demonstrated to them how to find and relocate nests. We then began to walk at different times so that we could monitor the beach better. Despite some difficulties in coordination (our volunteers would waste time searching for nests which had already been removed), it was definitely a boon to have more people monitoring the beach. The fact that we found over 300 nests this season is testimony to this. By participating in the programme, the forest department too have a better understanding of the difficulties at the ground level. We see this as a good model for the future where committed NGOs can partner with the Forest Department.
We released 22,678 hatchlings at our Besant Nagar and Marina hatcheries while the Forest Department released another 5,000 hatchlings. This is our highest ever in a given season and we feel a sense of hope for the future when we see the little turtles enter the sea.
The turtle walks have become a well-known cultural event in Chennai and draw huge crowds. We struggle to keep the group to a reasonably manageable number every weekend. We decided that we would focus on students of schools and colleges and individuals rather than work with large groups.
For the first time this year, we also started interacting with the public in Tamil, the local language. Harish, who has been with us for four years now, has acquired the expertise to interact with the public very well and anchored the Tamil interaction. This was a hugely popular decision with many participants feeling very comfortable in their own mother tongue.
We released hatchlings several times during a 24 hour cycle. The hatchlings rarely emerged during the day, but when they do we release them immediately to reduce the chance of dehydration. However, the main hatchling release occurs just after dusk in the evening, when the crows have retired for the day. We also check the hatcheries at 10pm, 12am, 4am and 6am. Often the evening release will continue till 10pm as hatchling keep emerging, or the night release will go on from 10pm to 1am. Due to a large number of nests emerging on the same day, we often released several hundred hatchlings in a single evening! Both our watchmen, who are from the fishing community, are invaluable in monitoring the hatcheries around the clock, but Kumar anna from the Marina hatchery is a great asset as he even sleeps in the hatchery to be available all the time and involves his whole family when needed.
The hatchling release programme drew huge crowds, mainly children too young to undertake the over-night walk. There were many children everyday to cheer the young turtles going in to the sea. This seems like a very valuable interface to have young children interact with nature as they always seem to feel touched and keep coming back. Shravan, who has been with us 9 years now, continued to take charge of the Besant Nagar hatchery while managing his business and snake rescue! We have reached out to around 5,000 people this season. Around 1,500 people came for the walks and around 3,500 people participated in the hatchlings release.
Early in the season, we were contacted by conservationist and Cetacean Expert Dipani Sutaria and Rahul Muralidharan from ATREE to help with their Cetacean study. They conducted a workshop for us on the procedures and methods. The volunteers were excited to learn about the Cetaceans and the amount of knowledge that could be acquired from live and dead strandings. We plunged in to the task with great enthusiasm and provided information to them. We also released some stranded dolphins back in to sea. One of these is thought to be a striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba). We hope to continue on this front in the upcoming season.
Last, but not the least, we are very grateful to all the fishermen along the coast who have helped us identify many nests whose tracks had been obliterated by the incoming tide. The fishermen have always been friendly to us and have supported us in whatever way they can. This year we also came across a few injured turtles. On such occasions, we contacted Dr. Supraja Dharini from TREE Foundation who immediately agreed to take the turtles and provide the necessary medical care.
At the end of the season we have mixed feelings. We are happy that we released our highest number of hatchlings and for the wonderful work put in by the volunteers. But, we are also worried about the number of dead turtles and are determined to do something about it. A promising development has been the return of Adhith, one of our most experienced volunteers and a trustee with SSTCN. He will dedicate the next five months to reaching out to educational institutions and other stakeholders, such as fishing community members and the fisheries department.