20090928

Turtle People

K A Shaji
Kozhikode


Till two decades ago, the residents of Kolavippalam, a fishermen’s village in Kozhikode district of Kerala, felt no remorse in killing the turtles that arrived on the local beach every winter to lay eggs. From September to March, both the meat and eggs were part of their daily menu. Some sold the meat in nearby localities.

One morning, while Surendra Babu, an autorickshaw driver from the village, was going through a newspaper, he saw an item on the threats faced by the endangered Olive Ridley Turtles in Orissa. The school drop-out realised the turtles which reach Kolavippalam beach every year were the same species. Babu started a campaign among villagers to protect the local hatcheries of the rare turtles. He urged them to stop eating the meat and egg. To his great astonishment, most villagers agreed. Soon, Babu was leading one of the most remarkable conservation efforts in the country.

Most members of Theeram Prakriti Samrakshana Samithy, a movement dedicated exclusively to Olive Ridley turtles, are poor fishermen of the village. Every nesting season, they patrol the beach at night to collect eggs. The idea is simple: eggs must be protected from predators, both human and animal. So, freshly laid eggs are taken out from their original nests and re-buried immediately in make-shift hatcheries. Fifty days later when the two-inch hatchlings struggle out, they are released into the sea.

What makes Kolavippalam different is the absence of environmentalists. Most activists are fishermen but there are also autorickshaw drivers, private college teachers, boatmen and shop owners. Even after a hectic day of fishing or some other daily-wage labour, the men participate in searching for eggs in the night and early morning. They often collect over 150 eggs at a time. This season, the group is planning to release 5,000 hatchlings into the sea.

The initiative is not without risks. A number of them have been manhandled because the conservation effort obstructs the massive sand mining operations that have devoured the local estuary and the shore. But it has become popular. An informal network of sympathisers bring news, and sometimes even eggs, of nesting miles down the coast. Theeram activists now release as many as 3,000 hatchlings into the sea every year.

The turtle people feel a sense of pride that the Olives have chosen their beach as a nesting ground. “It is believed that Olives inevitably return to the beach where they were born, to lay eggs,” says Sajeevan, an activist. “The number of hatchlings we have released into the sea has been increasing every year. We dream that one day our beach will be a mass nesting place of Olive Ridleys, bigger than Gahirmatha.”