A Moonlight Quest

By the light of a golden moon, we hunted for the olive ridley turtle. The nonprofit Tree Foundation, students and environmentalists were searching along the southeast Indian coast, not with nets or arms but with bags ready to hold scores of eggs, should the searchers be lucky and spot a three-foot-long turtle nesting, or even its tracks in the sand.

By March 3 this nesting season, the foundation had found 120 nests – and 90 dead turtles. While searchers along this coast south of Chennai had found 100 nests per kilometer in the 1970s, now they find only 10. By the end of February, only 80 nests had been found, down from 100 at the same time last year. The olive ridleys swim more than 1,000 miles and return to nest on the beaches where they were hatched.

The warm tropical night was fraught with suspense: Would we see a turtle? Or at least find its tractor-like tracks in the sand leading to its precious eggs, which could then be moved to a safer spot? Would the turtle be alive? Or would we find a scarred turtle that had died and washed ashore just before laying its eggs? Bigger questions lingered: Would the olive ridley survive as a species? Why are the searchers finding fewer olive ridleys? And what do they mean for the sea, and for us?

The excitement and anticipation is a key point of the excursion: Thousands of upper-middle-class residents of the nearby city of Chennai alone have been on turtle walks. Other cities have their movements too, and in southwest India, young fisherfolk, inspired by reading a newspaper article, work to save the turtles. The hatchlings are “indisputably among the most charismatic aassadors of conservation,” wrote Professor Kartik Shanker of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who years ago was a founder another Chennai group, the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, which host its own walks. The turtle walks, Shanker wrote, “help motivate and shape young ecologists and conservationists who might go on to save turtles or other species of wildlife elsewhere.”

For a long time these enormous reptiles weren’t valued. Boys in local fishing villages used to treat the eggs as playthings. A fisherman, G. Ezhumalai, put it succinctly: “Before: omelet.” Protected under India's 1972 wildlife law, the air-breathing turtle is often caught in fishing nets, where it drowns or is dragged, scraping along the bottom of the Bay of Bengal until it dies of its wounds. Newly hatched turtles face other, surprising hazards.

Feral dogs eat the eggs. The brightest lights that hatchlings used to see were the moon and stars shining reflected in the water, a beacon drawing the newborn turtles to the sea. Now, the ever-increasing electric lights near the shore attract the hatchlings, which then head in the wrong direction and get tangled in vegetation, run over by cars, eaten by dogs or simply die, exhausted, of dehydration.

As we walked along a wide, sandy beach littered with plastic, Supraja Dharini, founder and chairperson of the Tree Foundation, Ezhumalai and I separated from the main group and sat by a large piece of driftwood. Dharini started the Tree Foundation after she saw the carcass of a dead turtle on the beach, and thought of Jane Goodall's words “Each and every individual can make a difference.”

Ezhumalai tells of his conversion from egg poacher to preserver. As a child, he would play catch and cricket with turtle eggs. “We throw the ball till it breaks, just for fun.” Later, “Ma’am told me the sea turtle is very important.”

Dharini, who has a doctorate in philosophy, explains that other sea turtles eat away sponges covering rock and coral reef formations, making room for marine life to hide and spawn.

“We are taking fish from the sea. Nobody thanks the sea,” Ezhumalai says. “We’ll protect the sea turtles and give thanks to the ocean.” Now when village boys see eggs, they alert Ezhumalai and 63 others like him. The forest department or Tree Foundation pays a salary for most of them.

“Don’t Move!”

On the moon-lit beach, the main group found a mystery. Fresh tracks led high up the beach, into the tangle of creeper weeds. It seems a turtle had started to nest there, but had given up. They were searching: Had the olive ridley nested there after all? Might they find eggs? Or had she come from the ocean again and nested nearby?

While they were slowly searching, she had nested only 10 meters away. We race to catch up with the main group and see the nesting turtle – too late. The turtle is gone, her task done. Oh! I missed seeing an olive ridley! Hungrily, I look at photos a young person [student?] had just taken of the two-foot-long turtle, mostly submerged in sand. “It kept flapping its wings,” someone says of the flippers, its tracks in the sand a bit like snow angels.

Carefully, the volunteers remove the eggs, which look like moist white Ping-Pong balls, flecked with sand, from the pot-shaped hole. “Thirteen,” someone shouts gleefully. “Fifteen.” “Fifty-three eggs!” The final count is 82.

As we walk back, tiny, slender bioluminescent flashes, bright as silver lightning, occasionally highlight the crashing, foaming-white waves.

“Don’t walk! Don’t walk! Stay there!” Dharini shouts as dark, fast-scurrying hatchlings surround us. “Behind your right leg! Don’t move!”

By moonlight, everything except the shimmering sea is shades of dark velvet. The turtles racing toward the sea are darker than the sand. Proving the hazards of development and shore lights, a three-inch long baby turtle turns away from the water and heads straight to a camera shining a dim light at sand level. Other turtles follow the Pied Piper of a flashlight. Ten, twenty, fifty—it’s impossible to count the hatchlings racing to the sea. People gather as many turtles as they can in a huge shawl and try to count the wriggling mass of life. Sixty-five, they decide. Then they put down the turtles. One in a thousand will survive, it is estimated. The females will use their geomagnetic GPS-like systems to return, magically, to this beach.

A wave crashes over five hatchlings, carrying all but one out to sea. Suddenly, it is all over. But we wait. “We just want to check if anything is remaining. Otherwise the dogs will get them.” Six laggards wiggle, headfirst, out of the sand. Then five more.

The night ends back at the hatchery as volunteers take turns planting the eggs in an enclosure where they will be protected from dogs and boys and heat and the temptation, at birth, to head toward street and house lights. The eggs are soft and flexible, indenting promptly at a gentle touch. Soon, the Tree Foundation members would create a roof for the hatchery thatched with long, dried brown coconut leaves “because it’s becoming warmer earlier nowadays,” Dharini says. Without the covering, when the temperature hits 95 degrees there would be, as Ezhumalai puts it, “boiled eggs.” Because the hatchlings’ sex is determined by their incubation temperature, even slight changes in temperature could lead to changes in the sex ratio.

The educational walk leave can leave visitors thrilled and environmentally inspired. I didn’t see a sea turtle tonight; I saw scores of them!

Saving the sea turtle

What do the olive ridleys mean for the sea, and for us? “Olive ridleys and sea turtles are flagships for a wide range of coastal and marine habitats, including sandy beaches and dunes, coral reefs and seagrass meadows,” Shanker later told me. “Creating the political and social will to protect sea turtles protects these habitats.

“The loss of a large vertebrate often has downstream impacts, but to me one of the biggest losses would be the loss of the arribada” – the mass nesting in a few days of more than 100,000 turtles in a two-mile area in Orissa, a state far north of Chennai – “a spectacular natural phenomenon, a natural heritage.”

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