Home » culture » Saving the World, One Turtle at a time.

Saving the World, One Turtle at a time.

Statement: Olive Ridley turtles are plentiful, so they are in no danger of extinction.
Answer: Wrong. Human beings are even more plentiful, and their habitations are encroaching on the Ridleys’ nesting sites at an alarming rate.

The SSTCN* is a voluntary group that has been patrolling the beaches of Chennai, every night for four months of the year, from January to April, since 1987. That’s a lot of dedicated patrolling by a group that’s entirely voluntary and has been largely self-funded since its inception. Thanks to nature-film series like National Geographic and Universum, the life cycle of sea turtles species and their general pattern of behaviour is widely known. The adult females mate in shallow waters or out in the ocean, then stagger ashore a few weeks later to lay their clutch of eggs in pits scooped out of the sand with their flippers. They cover the eggs with sand after laying (anything from 50 to 200 hundred eggs), using their flippers to wipe out traces of the nesting site. Conservationists use these telltale smooth patches of loose sand as an indicator that there is a nest underneath.

Ridley sea turtle: Image courtesy National Geographic

The eggs hatch under the sand in around 45 days. And then another miracle occurs. The newly hatched turtles emerge from their nest and fight their way to the sea, guided by the phosphorescence of the breaking waves in faint starlight or moonlit nights. They struggle out through undulations in the sand and disappear into the waves, where perhaps one in a hundred will survive to become adults. The sand temperature at the time of hatching determines the sex of the baby turtles, with relatively cool temperatures producing males, and females emerging as temperatures rise.

Several of the students who volunteered for turtle walks in the past have gone on to play significant roles in various national and international environmental organizations. The current group of volunteers has significantly improved contacts with local fisherman. Several fishermen, formerly enthusiastic poachers, are now supporters of the conservation network. These fishermen can play a significant role in the future of conservation efforts. As human dwellings increasingly encroach close to the shoreline, the turtle hatchlings face another hazard. Lured like teenagers by the bright lights of the city, they head for the houses, away from the sea. For this reason, the volunteers patrol the beaches every night, collecting freshly laid eggs and taking them to hatcheries. Six to seven weeks later, the hatchlings are brought to the same stretch of shore and released, guided safely to the sea by the light of volunteers’ torches.

Once in the water, the young turtles face the hazards that nature has designed for them. An estimated one or two in a thousand survive, grow to adulthood, and emerge from the sea a decade later, to lay their clutch of a hundred eggs or more on the very same beach from which they entered the sea. This is a process that has gone on for a million years, and it is in the interest of mankind that they can continue to do this for centuries to come. In myriad complex ways, the future of humanity might depend on it.

*SSTCN – Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network. See their website at https://sstcn.org/ if you’d like to know more about their great work.

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