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Vol. XXXII No. 20, February 1-15, 2023
Tamil Nadu is blessed with a lovely, long coastline that is frequented by five species of marine turtles – Green, Leatherback, Loggerhead, Olive Ridley and Hawkbill turtles. Of these, the critically endangered Olive Ridley nests along the Coromandel Coast, which forms a part of the migratory corridor en route to the mass nesting beaches in Odisha. Sadly, many of them are killed each year during nesting season from encounters with fishing boats. Their traditional nesting habitats in the State have undergone considerable deterioration as well, with marine pollution and climate change posing serious threats to their existence. Noting that turtles “play an extremely important role in maintaining the marine bio-diversity, as they act as the ecosystem engineers,” an order was issued by IAS officer Supriya Sahu (Secretary of Environment, Climate Change and Forests) on January 20th to set up a Turtle Conservation and Rehabilitation Centre at Guindy’s Children Park. The centre will be the first of its kind in the State and will serve as a comprehensive facility equipped with medical and rehab amenities for injured turtles, as well as a turtle pool and a turtle shed. It is envisioned as a temporary home for sick and injured turtles; veterinary doctors and trained experts will handle their treatment before they are released back into their natural habitat. The initiative has been earmarked Rs. 6.3 crores, funded by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and implemented by the Chief Wildlife Warden.
In a quote to the media, Ms Supriya said, “Every year during nesting season, several Olive Ridley turtles get hit by fishing boat engines and their flippers get damaged as they get entangled in nets. Hitherto, we didn’t have any facility to shelter and treat these turtles. They have to either fend for themselves or die a painful death. We are trying to address this gap.” The centre will take an effort towards active conservation as well, identifying beaches in the 14 coastal districts that are frequented by nesting turtles and mapping regular nesting spots, such as Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari. It will understand the various threats faced by the turtles and will work on mitigating these to create the conditions for safe nesting, for which it will work in unison with the local fishing community and NGOs. “We will earmark the identified beaches, safeguard them by ensuring that the turtle eggs are not disturbed during beach cleanups, protect them from other predators like street dogs, and create hatcheries for nesting,” said Supriya Sahu. The administration has already made progress with the initiative – it reportedly established 22 hatcheries in 2022, secured them and safely released 1,64,000 eggs. Around 15,000 eggs have also been collected from various beaches in the State this year. The government’s turtle conservation plan also includes liaising with the fishing community to enable them to protect turtles accidentally caught in their fishing nets.
The turtle conservation centre is a welcome announcement, for it signals a committed effort towards protecting an endangered species that is indigenous to our shores. The Olive Ridley, for instance, is well-known to our shores and has many names in Tamil such as the yeth aamai, panchal aamai and vakatta aamai. There is a veritable ocean of data to collect about these animals and the centre, with its goal to create a repository of information about the turtles, their characteristics and breeding habits, can offer strong support to such research indeed. In a move bolstering confidence in the initiative, the administration has also set up a turtle wing in the Tamil Nadu Crime Control Bureau to combat poaching or illegal consumption of turtle eggs. Going a step beyond, the wing will also keep in touch with NGOs to conduct regular turtle walks and study turtle migration routes using conventional flipper tagging, molecular genetics and satellite telemetry. “The primary motive is to put proper SOPs in place, that clearly suggest the procedure to be followed when turtles arrive with specific injuries. Through the centre, we are aiming to strengthen the expertise on turtle conservation within the Tamil Nadu government,” Ms Supriya said. The turtle park at Guindy is envisioned to be a lighthouse facility that provides leadership and guidance to the conservation initiative, which is aimed to be undertaken in a scientific and systematic manner, with proper documentation and protocols – learnings that Supriya hopes will be transferred to other states that wish to engage in similar activities.
On paper, the plans are wonderful indeed. In fact, the initial statistics shared by the team pointing to the work done in 2022 and 2023 give much reason for confidence. But, the strength of this initiative truly lies in the participant network of local NGOs and fishermen that it proposes to build – an exercise in which, as far as the beaches are concerned in any case, the administration’s track record is mediocre at best. The proposed pen monument on the Marina, for instance, is fraught with controversy for environmental reasons: the suggested site for the statue, apart from other concerns, is said to encroach on the Olive Ridley’s nesting grounds. It is hoped that the new Turtle Conservation and Rehabilitation Centre will do a better job of listening to and harnessing the rich knowledge possessed by the local communities, NGOs and fisherfolk who live and work along the coast.