Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, Chenna, Tamil Nadu, India
The Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) has completed 29 years of conservation work on the coast of Chennai city. SSTCN works with volunteers on the 14km stretch of beach from Cooum estuary (which opens onto Marina beach) to Neelangarai (also known as Neelankarai). Every night between December and March, volunteers patrol the beach to look for nesting olive ridley turtles and relocate the nests into the two hatcheries set up annually on either side of the Adyar estuary. Hatchlings start to emerge from late February to May.
In the 2016/17 season, a total of 94 nests were found by SSTCN volunteers and another 116 by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department (TNFD) who patrol the same stretch of coastline. While the 94 nests in the two SSTCN hatcheries showed a hatching success rate of 67% the TNFD described a hatchling production of 92% from its 116 nests.
It was a very eventful season. Tamil Nadu witnessed its biggest public protest, where youth wanting to preserve the cultural tradition of ‘jallikattu’ occupied the entire Marina Beach for a few weeks during the turtle nesting season, completely disrupting walks with the public, and possibly discouraging turtles from nesting. As a voluntary group we have a regular turnover of dedicated volunteers every season, but this season was dramatic on that score too. Seven of our seasoned walkers could not join us for various reasons but we had nine new volunteers, inexperienced but enthusiastic. They played a very important role this season.
Turtle nests and public walks
It has been a strange season in many ways… for one, we have not had a season where the visiting public saw so little. Out of 20 nights of turtle walks, 13 were ‘dry walks’ where no nest or turtle was sighted. Out of the seven successful walks, a total of only 8 nests were found. Of the total of 41 nests found in the Besant Nagar- Neelangarai stretch by our volunteers, 33 nests were found on week-nights when only volunteers patrol and the public does not join us.
During February, which we have always thought of as the peak season, three weekends went by without any nests or hatchlings. In the one solitary productive weekend we found 3 nests. March was relatively better as the visiting public managed to witness emerging hatchlings from our hatchery being released.
Marina beach is popular with tourists and over-crowded, but every year we find more nests in the Marina stretch than the Besant Nagar stretch. We have been tempted to conduct turtle walks for the public on Marina so there will be a better chance for people to find nests or even see a nesting turtle. However, the Marina stretch does not feel safe. Moreover, there is the history of weekday as well as weekend walks being conducted in the Besant Nagar stretch for nearly 40 years now. From the early 1980’s turtle walks were conducted by WWF, and by SSTCN from 1988-89. As such every fisherman from the fishing villages on this stretch has grown up witnessing the phenomenon of turtle walks. In that sense we are a part of the culture of the local community.
We started patrolling and relocating nests on Marina only in 2010 and while there are many supportive and friendly fishermen there we still face difficult situations. On a number of nights this year, our volunteers were accosted by groups of fishermen (some of whom were drunk) and the interactions were quite unpleasant. Conducting public walks late in the night in that stretch might not be such a good idea. Because of these issues, we have not conducted public walks yet on Marina Beach, though patrolling is done both by SSTCN volunteers and the Forest department.
Aiding three-flippered turtles
We came across three-flippered turtles on several occasions this season. Almost all of them struggled to nest as they could not dig a proper nest chamber without both hind flippers. Our volunteers helped the turtles nest by lying behind the turtle and expanding the egg chamber without touching her and without her noticing. Usually if the turtle feels that the nest is big enough she lays her eggs. Our volunteers have been doing this for the past few years. Earlier we were hesitant to interfere and sometimes watched helplessly as these handicapped turtles dug scores of shallow body pits and left without laying eggs.
This year we came across a few turtles which nested in the evening between 4 pm and 6 pm. We have not come across many such instances before.
Working with the Forest Department
This season was our fourth one working with the forest department. They were very serious this year and were involved in patrolling both the stretches of beach. The total distance covered is 14km and it would have been easy for each group to walk at different times, covering the night hours effectively. This would also prevent the loss of nests to poachers or to dogs. It would also allow greater checking for wild hatchlings from nests we had missed when laid. While the higher officers saw the logic of this, it was difficult to implement the plan at the ground level. We proposed that we would walk early one night, say at 11pm, and they at 3am with the next night (or the next week) the timings being reversed. Instead they walked at 1.30am every night and their walk finished early in the morning. To us, this felt like it was not the best use of human resources. Being a volunteer run organisation, we have to consider the motivation and morale of volunteers who were just asked to walk along with the forest department employees. We struggled with the interface quite a bit this year. On weekends we just walked with the Forest Department and allowed them to scout, probe, find nests if any and relocate them. On week days we tried doing all kinds of permutations and combinations until the end of the season.
On the Marina beach section, we split the 6km into two stretches of 3km each and the Forest Department and SSTCN volunteers walked different stretches. We monitored the entire beach on days they finished early.
There is usually an average of about 100 nests per year in the Besant Nagar stretch. This year yielded around the same number, with SSTCN finding 41 nests and the Forest Department around 55. The Marina stretch usually yields anything between 120 to 180 nests. This year SSTCN found 90 nests and they found 65 nests.
This season we came across two stranded juvenile turtles. One was a green turtle washed up near the Adyar estuary close to the SSTCN hatchery on 8th Feb 2017. Its carapace measured 46×45 cm (curved length and width) A juvenile hawksbill was found on the beach in Neelangarai, but its measurements were not recorded.
We had different conditions in our two hatcheries this year and as a result we had one of our lowest survival rates in the last 5 years. The Besant Nagar hatchery was very dry, probably due to the failed monsoon last season. There was no wet sand even one foot down in most places. We also had a lot of trouble with Ipomoea spp. roots. It was very difficult to dig artificial egg chambers in the hatchery as the sides kept collapsing both due to the dryness and the roots. As usual we put up a jute sheet cover on the hatchery in mid-March to reduce the temperature. Still, the hatching success dropped drastically in April.
The Marina hatchery suffered from the opposite conditions. Constant removal of sand from the estuary area by the government for sale to Ennore Port is a likely cause for sea water incursion in the Srinivasapuram area adjoining the river. The mouth of the Adyar River was often getting blocked due to sand build up and caused water stagnation in the river. Both these have resulted in moisture seeping in to the beach sand, even in the hatchery area though it is located quite far from the river. This has been a growing problem but worsened considerably this year. The sand was quite wet and resulted in eggs getting spoilt. Also, hatchlings found it difficult to emerge from the nest on their own through the very hard sand and we had to loosen the sand in the egg chamber for many nests.
Early in the season there was an oil spill. We were already reeling under the burden of dead turtles (we had 217 dead turtles stranded on just our 14km stretch this season) and low nesting. The news of the oil spill sent us in to further gloom. Also, while the spill was initially reported as a small spill, daily reports of the volume of oil spilt kept increasing. From the starting report of a few hundred litres the reports went to more than two lakh (200, 000) litres. We began to witness the oil on the beach and in the near-shore waters. The oil kept spreading and the last report was from Pondicherry 150km further south. A few NGOs got involved in cleaning up the oil manually. Some expressed concern about the safety of the volunteers. We were constantly contacted by the media to assess the impact of the oil spill on the turtles. A photograph of a dead turtle lying on the rocks by the side of the beach, covered in oil went viral. It was reported that hundreds of turtles were killed by the oil spill. However, we found no visible impact on the turtles or any change in their nesting to the best of our knowledge. Turtles came and nested without a drop of oil on them. When we mentioned this to the press, it was not what they expected to hear and they were not happy about our reports. We told them that there were a number of dead turtles already and some of them might have become coated by oil. We said that it would be good if the media put pressure on the government to conduct necropsies on the dead turtles to assess the cause of death, but they were not interested. Finally, the oil ‘storm’ passed and it turned out to be a minor event in the season, though an unpleasant one.
Beach clean-ups and night walks with CTC
Like last year, the beach was badly littered with all kinds of debris. Chennai this year was hit by Cyclone Vardah, which knocked down more than one lakh (100, 000) trees. The corporation of Chennai was collecting the dead wood, branches and leaves, and storing in it open spaces like play grounds, and some of it was deposited on the beach too. We were worried that if the beach was going to become a dumping ground then it would be a huge hindrance to turtle nesting, but finally it was only in manageable quantities.
The garbage washed on to the beach, however, was disrupting the nesting. Like last year. we requested the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) to help us and, after we put up the hatcheries during the first weekend of January, they assembled every weekend through January and February, often on both days and cleaned the beach diligently. Unfortunately, SSTCN doesn’t have enough members to contribute significantly to this effort and we have come to rely on them heavily in this regard. Like last year, CTC also joined us on night walks as extra support to the walks, which involved a lot of coordination. Hema of CTC was very supportive in both operations.
Jallikattu protest and our response
Early in the season, the infamous Jallikattu protests happened on the Marina stretch of the beach. The youth of Tamilnadu had gathered in huge numbers on the beach and lit bonfires. One of the main targets of the group gathered was PETA, and as such they were suspicious of and antagonistic towards any group working with animals and conservation. We were often asked through the season whether we were PETA members in a suspicious (and often aggressive) manner. It was not comfortable to walk on Marina but our volunteers managed to patrol quite a few days. Only when the police got very overbearing did we stop patrols and wait for the protest to end. In the middle of all this, Shravan, one of our senior volunteers managed to create some awareness about turtles on the large screens put up by the protestors with an announcement that it was the sea turtle nesting season and people should keep away from the sea-shore so they would not frighten away nesting turtles.
Every year, seeing many regular volunteers move on, there is anxiety about having enough committed youngsters for the next season, but somehow people pitch in and we rarely if ever, miss even a single night of patrolling. This year, with the Forest Department taking up turtle conservation work in earnest, our challenge is more in co-existing with them and working without our volunteers losing motivation. We fear that there may be trying times ahead.
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