The year 1969 was momentous. It marked the end of an iconic decade. Woodstock happened. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon (or at a film set in Arizona). The Beatles gave their last live performance. In India, Romulus Whitaker started the Snake Park on the outskirts of Chennai (then Madras) which would lead to the first efforts towards sea turtle conservation in India, when a few enthusiasts got together and started conducting turtle walks on the Chennai coast. I was born that year as well, but I had little to offer to the discourse on sea turtle conservation that was beginning to gather momentum globally.
In the 1960s, wildlife conservation and environmental issues started to become more prominent. Stalwarts like Archie Carr in the Americas, George Hughes in South Africa and Robert Bustard and Colin Limpus in Australia would start sea turtle research and conservation programmes that continue till today. Carr, the pioneer of sea turtle conservation, globally established the Marine Turtle Specialist Group in 1966.
Still, in the 1970s, marine turtles were often referred to within a fisheries framework in India. E.G. Silas, the director of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute wrought a major change by focussing attention on the conservation of marine endangered species, including research on olive ridley turtles. In 1977, the five sea turtle species found in India had been included in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, and by the end of the decade, they were firmly a conservation icon. I was then 10, and playing frequently on Elliot’s beach in Chennai, not far from where my grandfather lived. None of us had heard of olive ridleys, and though aforementioned grandfather saw a nesting turtle during one of his evening walks, he didn’t consider it remarkable or interesting enough to tell the family about it at the time.
The turtle walks that Rom Whitaker had started in the early 70s attracted another iconic figure. Satish Bhaskar, an IIT drop-out made sea turtles his thing and spent the next 20 years surveying the entire coast of India, and remote islands in the Andaman and Nicobars, and Lakshadweep for sea turtles. His body of work provided the baseline for future research at many critical nesting beaches around the country. Efforts of conservationists and the forest department, aided by the timely intervention of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, greatly reduced the number of Orissa’s turtles that were making their way to the meat markets of Kolkata.
By the time I turned 20, olive ridleys were better known to the youth of Chennai. Like an actor in niche cinema. WWF and other NGOs conducted turtle walks regularly for school and college students, and as a student of Madras Christian College, I got sucked into it as well. We started the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network in 1988, which is still active thirty years later.
The 1990s was the decade of citizen movements for sea turtle conservation. Inspired by or just similar to SSTCN, NGOs sprung up in various parts of the country, including Theeram, a collection of fishermen and their friends in a fishing village in Kerala, the VSPCA in Vishakapatnam, and a variety of other groups. The trawler-related mortality of olive ridleys in Orissa became Page 3 news, and by the time the Super-Cyclone hit Orissa in 1999, sea turtle conservation had become a national priority. After a hiatus from sea turtles for a few years, which I spent on a PhD on small mammals, I celebrated my 30th year by returning to research on sea turtles, in particular on olive ridley turtles. Modern techniques such as genetics were helping define populations, and providing evidence for natal homing (that sea turtles return to the beaches where they were born to nest), while satellite telemetry was helping track the migratory routes of turtles.
In the 2000s, several long-term monitoring and research programmes were initiated in India, mirroring initiatives in other parts of the world. Dakshin Foundation initiated monitoring of olive ridleys in Orissa and leatherbacks in the Andaman Islands, while the Nature Conservation Foundation started their work on green turtles in the Lakshadweep Islands. In 2010, we conducted the International Sea Turtle Society’s 30th Annual Symposium in Goa. It was only the second time it was being held in Asia, and attracted over 500 participants from around the world. The theme of the symposium was “The World of Sea Turtles” and meant to draw attention to the fact that we needed to conserve habitats and ecosystems, and not just the turtles themselves. That we should use them as flagships for a broader conservation ethic, and not be sucked into a narrow focus on species.
Fast forward another 10 years. Simple math suggests I’ve turned 50. Another change has come about in the sea turtle world. At the annual symposium in Japan in 2018, we host a panel on “Beyond Protection of Sea Turtles”. Globally, many sea turtle populations have recovered and are believed to be stable or even increasing. Leatherback and olive ridley turtles are now listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List (earlier they were listed as Critically Endangered and Endangered), and many green turtle populations are as abundant as they’ve been in the last half century. Two sea turtle biologists refer to them as cucaracha (cockroaches). What a come down for species that were accorded the highest pedestal alongside pandas and rhinos and tigers.
Or is it a come down? In fact, sea turtle conservation has been incredibly successful. There really are millions of olive ridleys nesting at beaches in Orissa, Mexico and Costa Rica. A few years back, we counted over 400,000 ridleys at a single mass nesting event (arribada) in Rushikulya, and Mexico gets even more. There are huge numbers nesting in Ostional, Costa Rica, despite (or perhaps because of) a community-based egg harvest programme. When are we going to stop beating our breasts about the imminent extinction of these animals and acknowledge that we might need to revise our conservation goals. Many communities could benefit greatly from sustainable harvest of eggs or adults.
Surely, there are threats that we need to be concerned about. Coastal development — including ports and harbours — which leads to the erosion and loss of nesting beaches is the biggest one. Climate change can lead to loss of beaches through extreme events and sea level rise, but can also affect sex ratios as temperature determines sex in sea turtle embryonic development. Trawl-fishing still kills tens of thousands of turtles worldwide, but probably has an even worse impact on near shore marine ecosystems, and needs to be regulated or phased out.
Thanks to all the attention, the average reasonably well-read citizen now knows that sea turtles exist, and that they are endangered in some fashion. Everybody I meet asks how the turtles are, like they are enquiring after a sick relative. But, a half century after sea turtles wormed their way into our collective consciousness, we may need to start thinking about them a bit differently. Perhaps sustainable use has the best outcomes for people, turtles and ecosystems in some places. Their own remarkable lifestyles, the diversity of habitats they occupy, the ocean basins they traverse can serve as a metaphor for the approaches we adopt for their conservation. It is time we embraced diverse actions, which include an acknowledgement of the ways in which human societies around the world have interacted with these amazing creatures for thousands of years.