A quarter century ago two students started an NGO to save the olive ridley turtles. What they achieved, and what they have learned.
By Gireesh Babu
The Students’ Sea Turtle Conversation Network (SSTCN) turns 25 next year. This NGO has saved 150,000 olive ridley turtles and educated more than 30,000 people about turtles in the last quarter century. Despite this success, there is concern about this species.
According to V Arun, a coordinator and trustee of SSTCN, who has worked with the NGO for 15 years, “Chennai is one of the first places where ex situ conservation of turtles was done, in which the eggs laid by turtles are shifted to a hatchery and protected until the hatchlings are released in the sea.”
Female olive ridleys (adults are about 2 ft long) lay their eggs along the Chennai coast from January to April. SSTCN’s volunteers find and collect the eggs before their shells harden, and relocate them to a hatchery, where they go into man-made nests. The eggs are safe from predators like dogs and humans.
In 1988, students Tito Chandy and Arif Razack founded SSTCN. They were joined by a small team of volunteers. For the past several years SSTCN has been led by V Arun and Akila Balu, who are not students. At first SSTCN involved just students aged 16-25, but the network has adapted to change — just as, Arun says, the turtles' egg-laying activity has changed.
In 1991, 206 nests were found and 12,465 hatchlings released. In 1996-97, only 17-20 nests were found on 8 km of shore. From 2000-2001 to 2009, some 50-70 nests have been found each year.
Since 2009, the volunteers have walked further, adding 6 km along busy Marina Beach. The number of nests found rose to 185 last year, and SSTCN released 14,238 hatchlings. This year, only 124 nests were found — why is not known. The nesting season has just ended.
In SSTCN's turtle walks, volunteers guide enthusiasts along the shore. There is an introductory session first, to explain the effects of climate change and environmental issues on the turtles, says Balu, who has been with SSTCN since 2005 and is also a coordinator.
At one point the walks grew too popular. Several companies sent their employees en masse. “We have realised that this is their so-called CSR activity,” says Arun. “Many employees on the walk have no interest other than an outing. This year we have strictly said no.”
SSTCN also adjusted the time of the walks. They used to begin at 11 pm. Now they begin after 1 am and end at 5 am. This draws dedicated walkers and better accords with the turtles’ nesting time. General turtle walks take place twice a week during the hatching season, on Friday and Saturday nights; the aim is awareness, not solely saving the eggs.
The main threat to the olive ridley is the nets of fishing trawlers. But large-scale poaching and coast protection measures like fencing the shore also pose a threat. These turtles, after all, travel thousands of miles to return to their own birthplace to lay the eggs that will produce the next generation.
The NGO stopped the coastal casuarina plantation programme of the Emergency Tsunami Reconstruction Project, funded by the World Bank. Casuarina is a fast-growing tree that hinders turtles from reaching the sand. SSTCN also convinced the local governing body to turn off tall mast lights along the coast during the nesting season. The lights draw hatchlings inland rather than towards the sea.
Recent studies reveal another threat. While much of the olive ridley’s life-cycle is unknown to scientists and environmentalists, the general opinion is that with climate change, the nests and eggs are exposed to higher temperatures. This breaks the equilibrium of the sexes. Hatchlings from eggs exposed to temperatures higher than 28.4 Celsius tend to be female. Climate change ensures that eggs are exposed to higher temperatures, so there are more females.
Instead of tagging massive numbers of hatchlings, SSTCN says it is open to any research that will save turtles. “Too much research for the sake of research is useless. If it would help by any means to conserve the turtles, we are there to support,” said Arun.
“Initially I used to feel discouraged about the whole idea of turtle walks and releasing hatchlings, because we found dead turtles. Nowadays I feel our actions set an example to others to conserve the environment,” says Balu. “And it works.”