Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India


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 Leatherback records have been few and far between on the mainland coast of India. Interviews with fishermen over the years suggest that leatherbacks do, or did, nest along much of the Indian coast, but the numbers have not been large, at least not in the last century (see Shanker and Choudhury, 2006). In fact, in his guide to the Marine Aquarium in Madras, Henderson (1913) writes that the ‘leathery turtle’ is rare on the South Indian coast (see Frazier, 2011). He notes that a specimen was captured on the Guntur coast in April 2011, but was not brought to the aquarium.

However, local fishermen in Kerala had informed T.H. Cameron, an English officer stationed in Quilon, that a large number of leatherbacks were caught at the turn of the century but the numbers had already declined (Cameron, 1923). According to them, about 40 turtles were caught annually either while coming ashore or with nets at sea. They were often seen in the vicinity of Tangacheri Reef. Cameron attempted to obtain a leatherback specimen and finally located one, but it was sold while being transported from his office, probably for consumption.

Most of the fishing net capture and stranding records are from the Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra. While the records may not reflect actual distribution, the higher frequency of occurrence in southern India may not be surprising given that the nearest extant rookery is in southern Sri Lanka (Ekanayake et al., 2002). While most records have been of captured or stranded turtles, Jones (1959) recorded a nesting event at Calicut, Kerala, in July 1956.

Southern Kerala is one of the few places in the world where leatherback meat is consumed. As recently as 2002, a leatherback turtle caught in a gill net at Vizhinjam was butchered and the meat transported to a nearby market for sale at Rs. 20 per kg (Krishna Pillai, 2003a, b). On another occasion, a captured leatherback was released due to the efforts of a foreign tourist who was present at the harbour (Krishna Pillai et al., 2003a).

Additional leatherbacks have been released through the efforts of the community or forest officials (Krishna Pillai et al., 2003b; Balachandran et al., 2009). The most recent records of leatherback strandings are from the Gulf of Mannar (Balachandran et al., 2009) and Vizhinjam (Anil et al., 2009), both in 2008. In both cases, the turtles were rescued from fishermen with the help of forest officials and released.

Krishna Pillai has compiled lists of leatherback records on the Indian mainland (Krishna Pillai and Thiagarajan, 2000; Krishna Pillai et al., 2003a). Table 1 contains an updated record of all leatherback sightings and strandings on the mainland coast over the last century.


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