They have been visiting Chennai's coast for more than 110 million years, but they're making new friends this time. Endangered Olive Ridley turtles have found support in the Tamil Nadu forest department, which will be working on their conservation.
So far turtle conservation has been largely the domain of non-governmental organisations with volunteers from Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) patrolling the beaches to collect and relocate nests. The government's interest will mean problems such as poaching, bright lighting on beaches and unregulated trawling during nesting season can be addressed.
The forest department said tenders to buy turtle-excluding devices for fishing nets are being finalised. "We will buy and distribute the devices to fishermen. These devices ensure that turtles and other large creatures escape the nets," said David Raj, a range officer from the forest department. Trawler boats are the biggest threat to turtles. Their nets sweep the ocean bed and capture everything that come their way.
Conservationists say more than 95% of the catch does not have commercial value and is thrown back. By the time turtles are freed, however, they drown as they have to come to the sea surface to breathe. This year, 82 dead turtles were found on the shore between Srinivasapuram and Napier Bridge and 50 between Urur Kuppam and Neelankarai. Studies show that only 7% to 13% of turtles caught in nets wash ashore.
"A few turtles die when they get caught in our nets," said K Bharathi, president, South Indian Fishermen's Association. "But it is wrong to say that we are the sole reasons the deaths."
The forest department will write to the fisheries department to keep tabs on fishermen. "Conservation efforts will go in vain if trawling continues unchecked," said a forest officer.
Sea turtles are protected under the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, which gives them the same status as tigers when it comes to conservation. "Between Kottivakkam and Kadapakkam, we have been holding awareness camps for fishermen. We tell them not to hurt or catch turtles," said Julius Edward, additional director, fisheries department, Kancheepuram district.
SSTCN volunteers said artisanal fishermen are not a problem. "It is trawlers with long nets that are the culprits," said Akila Balu, SSTCN coordinator.
Turtles that do survive the nets and come ashore to nest face an uphill task. Weeds, concrete structures and garbage cover the beach, leaving very little space for them to dig nests. The forest department will also ask Chennai Corporation to clean the beach regularly.
"We will hold a beach clean-up with college students on February 1," said Raj. Forest department staff have joined SSTCN volunteers on nightly patrols and plan to set up another hatchery on Elliot's Beach.