Hail the turtlers!

Ranjit Lal | Updated on March 10, 2018

Against the odds: Only one in a thousand turtle eggs survive to adulthoodLingaraj Panda   -  THE HINDU;THE HINDU

From Soup to Superstar Kartik ShankerHarper-LitmusNon-fictionRs 550

An important book on the conservation efforts of experts and laypeople alike, who have helped make safe the lumbering journey of turtles from sea to shore and back

Sea turtles are amongst the most enigmatic creatures that have always fascinated and puzzled us. Their major USP is the ‘arribada’ (‘arrival by sea’ in Spanish) or mass-nesting, when in the dead of night, females lumber on to beaches in their thousands, to laboriously dig nests, lay eggs and stagger back into the waves. The hatchlings, barely two-inches long and weighing just 20 gm must dig themselves out and scuttle all the way back to the sea, running a gauntlet of voracious predators, and being guided by the lighter horizon that lies seawards. Only one in a thousand survive to adulthood. Not too much is known either about their lives in the seas, except that some time in the future, their mothers will find their way back to the beach where they laid their eggs, to do so again. Of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, five are found along the Indian coastline: the olive ridley, loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and leatherback.

In From Soup to Superstar, Kartik Shanker has detailed the ‘story of turtle conservation along the Indian coast.’ He’s had a lifetime’s experience studying the reptiles, and is a faculty member at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru and served as president of the International Sea Turtle.

For him it all started with an encounter with an olive ridley turtle on a beach in Madras (as it was then) where he later helped establish a student group for sea turtle conservation one which is still active.

In this book he discusses several major issues that arise from turtle conservation — and which if extrapolated can be relevant to conservation as a whole.

Sea turtle populations the world over and more so in India face numerous threats, usually operating together: from mechanised fishing trawlers to destruction of nests and nesting habitats. ‘Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs) — a mechanism which enabled turtles trapped in fishing nets to escape before they drowned — were introduced in the US many years ago and brought to India as well. The industry did not like them saying that they lost too much of their normal catch when they used them and accused beachfront development, light pollution and egg collection instead. It’s the classic ‘industry vs. conservation’ debate, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else and saying, ‘yours is a bigger problem, so deal with that first.’

Shanker also delves into the issue of the viewpoint of conservation biologists (like himself) versus those of ‘animal rights activists’, who value the life of every single animal. This, according to the former, is not a very practical stance to take, quite literally. It often leads to alienation and antagonism.

Another major issue that is discussed is the role of the community in conservation. In this case the fishing community, which was directly affected by the ban on turtle hunting and egg collecting and the use of TEDs.

Then there is the role of both the government and NGOs — big and small. Often NGOs squabble with each other and within themselves. Some, according to Shanker, are more interested in the publicity rather than the issue at heart and others function neither democratically nor transparently as their mandates claim.

What is wonderfully heartening, are the profiles Shanker sketches of the many people who have been fascinated by sea turtles and dedicated their lives to their cause. Most of them got ‘hooked’ while going on ‘turtle walks’ on beaches at night. There’s Satish Bhaskar, Rom Whitaker, Shekar Dattatri, Belinda Wright, J Vijaya, Banka Behary Das, and many other colourful characters whose extraordinary exploits (in the face of horrific odds), courage, stubbornness, talent, and hard work contributed to the turtle conservation movement in the country. There are more turtle enthusiasts (turtlers!) out there than you might imagine — scouring deserted beaches in the dead of night or embarking on perilous surveys on uninhabited isolated islands.

Odisha and Tamil Nadu (read Chennai) spearheaded the movement, the former through the government machinery, the latter largely through a student, voluntary movement. Before the Wildlife (Protection) Act came into force — and sea turtles ‘promoted’ to Schedule I — turtle fisheries in Odisha and the Gulf of Mannar were a big industry. Subsequently, (and heartening to know) the state government actually implemented protection measures on the ground, at times to the extent that it became a double-edged sword. Shanker takes us on numerous nest-hunting expeditions and surveys on the coasts of Odisha, Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and towards the end of the book on a turtle trip right around the Indian coastline (and the ‘islands’).

For turtle (or reptile) enthusiasts, this book is of course a must read — and for the majority of us (particularly ‘inlanders’) equally so, as it opens our eyes and minds to a movement we would otherwise be largely unaware of (out of sight, out of mind). For, as Shanker maintains, the sea turtles lumbering on to the beaches at night to lay their eggs have inspired thousands of ‘turtle walkers’ and opened the eyes of thousands of others to one of the great wonders of nature. Many, many of these people have become turtle-fans, many more have at least become aware of nature and conservation and many of these will have dedicated their lives to the cause: Even if not for turtles per se for some other creature fighting in its corner for survival. And that is as big a takeaway as you can expect.

Ranjit Lal is an author, birdwatcher and environmentalist

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Published on December 04, 2015
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