Thursday, January 28, 2010

Conservation, Chennai Style

By Shyamala Rao
A friend said “You know, we could take a Turtle Walk”. I stopped dead in my tracks. Had I inadvertently timed my visit to Chennai to coincide with the Olive Ridley Conservation season? The walks began at Velangeri beach around midnight and ended at Besant Nagar.

On Friday, excited and a little scared, we headed out to Besant Nagar and parked. Neither of us had any idea as to how safe it was for two gals to be at the beach around midnight. Oh well, if we were risking life and limb, it was in search of adventure and experience.
We hailed one of those noisy, polluting three wheelers, the ubiquitous phut-phuts and the driver balked at going all the way to Velangeri. He took us halfway and handed us to another phut-phut driver and off we roared towards Velangeri. We flagged a pedestrian as we approached the beach and inquired if he knew where the Turtle Walk started. “Sure”, he replied, “I am one of the Scouts”. We made room for him in our vehicle and took off once more.

At Velangeri beach there were at least 50 people gathered for the turtle walk. They were chatting amiably and looking relaxed. We were introduced to Anil, Akila and Aadit. They were absolutely charming and happy to impart information. Anil was the leader of the Turtle Walk that evening. He belonged to the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Council. Akila worked for the World Wildlife Fund and was one of the scouts. Aadit and a host of others were also scouts.

We sat down in a circle, moonlight bathing us in a silvery glow with a cool breeze wafting in from the bay. Anil educated the newcomers on Olive Ridley Sea Turtles and on the ground rules for the walk. The Olive Ridley which is the smallest of the Sea Turtles grows to 2 to 2 ½ feet in length. The turtles weigh 80 to 100 pounds when full grown. They live 60 to 80 years. Their nesting season is between January and April. At high tide, the female turtles come to the shore, form a nest in the sand, deposit 50 to 100 eggs, cover the nest up and slide back to the water and go away forever. The eggs hatch in 45 to 60 days. The hatchlings are small, fragile and vulnerable and do not yet have a sense of smell. They follow the light and try to get to the water and swim away.

Anil told us that for this conservation program in Chennai the 30 kilometer stretch of beach has been divided into 7 kilometer segments and scouts patrol their segment every night from January to April. The eggs are harvested from their nests and relocated eggs to a hatchery. When the hatchlings emerge they are hand carried to the water.

With the talk over and the ground rules for that evening’s turtle walk delineated we set off on our walk, dutifully staying several feet behind the scouts. It was past midnight. High tide was receding. Less than 15 minutes into the walk, Aadit found tracks of a turtle. I peered around and saw nothing. No tracks. No nest. No one else could see anything either. Then Aadit pointed to the marks on the sand showing the path taken by the female turtle heading back to the ocean after having made her nest and deposited the eggs. Once the tracks were identified it was easier to tell the path this female sea turtle had taken. Aadit directed us to the nest and we watched him scoop out 58 eggs. They were delicate, fragile, cream coloured and spongy to touch. The eggs, Anil reminded us had to be placed in the hatchery within 3 ½ hours of being laid. After that they formed their hard shells and cannot be handled any further.

We resumed the walk and kept at it till 5 a.m. We saw 2 more nests with 70 and 120 eggs each. Thence to the hatchery. We watched as the scouts, cautiously and carefully, placed the eggs into nests fashioned by human hands. In 45 to 60 days there would be a new generation of hatchlings. Gentle human hands would be carrying the hatchlings to the water. God willing every one of them will survive.

The big picture in conservation of species can be crushingly depressing but these students have found the answer. They chose a species, defined a technique of intervention and worked like the dickens, year after year, for 21 years. “It will all add up and make a difference,” said Anil. “From your mouth to God’s ear”, I prayed silently.

Shyamala Rao is the first of what we hope to be many guest bloggers on Art for Conservation. She is a wildlife artist living and working in San Antonio, Texas where she is a practicing psychiatrist. Her interest in wildlife was stimulated by a visit to the Serengeti in 2007 and since then she has been putting her feelings about animals onto canvas. She has just begun writing about conservation issues and hopes that by writing and painting she can do her part in helping conserve the glorious diversity of species on this planet.

This post was excerpted from the full article which can be found on her
Her art can be purchased at

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