CHENNAI: She was drawn to the ocean as a child; her quest for a purpose in life led her to study Indian philosophy and taught her how to see herself in all beings. The revelation paved the way for her environmental work. The turning point came in December 2001 when her love affair with the sea turtle began.
“One morning as I was walking along the seashore of a fishing village near my home, I saw something large washed ashore. I was curious and walked towards it — not wanting to disturb it. Then I realised it was a dead sea turtle,” says Supraja Dharini, leading wildlife conservationist and creator of TREE Foundation.
Its body was riddled with injuries. “The young fishermen nearby told me turtles got entangled in the trawl nets of mechanised boats during the breeding season between Dec and March each year,” she recalls. “Then and there I decided to do what I could to prevent the deaths of more of these turtles.”
She realised that she knew nothing about the turtles. They were amazing creatures, she soon found out. Swimming the oceans for millions of years, they play an important role in the marine ecosystem.
As they cover vast distances and return to nest on beaches, they are good indicators of the health and wealth of our oceans, bridging the gap between land and sea.
Once abundant throughout the world’s oceans, their very existence is under grave threat today because of indiscriminate fishing practices, poaching of adult turtles and eggs during the nesting season, habitat loss through coastal development, beach erosion and pollution. Add to that the fact that only one out of 1,000 hatchlings that enter the sea survives to reproduce. Being a long-living and slow-maturing species, they need to be protected during every stage of their life cycle.
The first conservation efforts on the South East Indian coast, started in 1972 by noted herpetologist and her good friend Romulus Whitaker, showed the way. “The offshore waters were and still are foraging grounds for juvenile hawksbill and green turtles. Adult Olive Ridley turtles pass through these waters en route to the mass nesting beaches further north in Orissa,” she tells us.
Dharini firmly believes that conservation and community development must go hand and hand. Networking with companies and individuals, she came up with alternative income-generating training programmes for the fishermen.
Medical camps and safety at sea programmes conducted by the Indian Coast Guard, distribution of children’s bedding kits and after-school programmes were conducted.
Another hurdle was the lack of awareness among coastal communities about the laws for protection of turtles, which led to rampant poaching of turtle eggs and adult turtles for consumption.
Ask her about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diktat to the Environment Ministry, and the conservationist does not mince words. “Most politicians only want development. They do not realise that once nature is damaged we cannot get it back. We can live without development but we cannot live without water and air. All the rules and regulations will be only be on paper no one will follow it. It is sad that our forest and wildlife are at their mercy.”