Volunteers cleaning the turtles. | Sunish P Surendran
Volunteers cleaning the turtles. | Sunish P Surendran

A slow and steady path back home for Punarvi and Mr Besant Sir

Rescuing turtles and healing them is tough, but when the turtles become healthy enough to return to their own habitat-the sea, it makes up for all the sweat and pain of volunteers. 

CHENNAI: Swimming along as usual, hunting for fish amongst the corals, she moved towards the light above to catch a breath of fresh air. Returning back to the deeper blue, a loud beating noise and a flash of pain across the upper left side of her shell and snout - a passing boat’s propeller blades were unmerciful to her unheard screams. Unable to move her flippers, she helplessly floated with the ocean currents, onto a sandy shore, where she was found several hours later by the eyes and hands of Pandian, a man from the Perunduravu fishermen community, and TREE Foundations Sea Turtle Protection Force member.

Punarvi, they now call her, which means rebirth in Sanskrit. Recovering steadily over two years at TREE Foundation’s Rescue and Rehabilitation centre in Neelangarai, the above 15 year old female Olive ridley is now ready to return to her first home. “When we first saw her, we weren’t sure whether she would survive; her injures were severe and her snout almost entirely cut off,” recalls Supraja Dharini, chairperson and founder of TREE Foundation. After a two-hour cleaning of her carapace shell, and removal of her cut-off snout by Dr Jayaprakash, Director of clinics, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Punarvi persevered and fought for her life.

Over the next 6 months, she was cared for dutifully; her wound first cleaned with normal saline, then dilute betadine (antiseptic) applied and left for 15 minutes, again flushed with normal saline, dabbed dry with a sterile gauze. A metrogel and silver sulphadiazine mixture was applied on her wound and sealed in with a sterile gauze. While the wound was healing, she was placed on a wet towel in a water tank with 1 inch water, to keep her hydrated. After healing, she was shifted to the larger tank where she could move around with more free will. “Turtles in trauma, and out of water, don’t feed normally. During the first three months, we gave her 300 ml of Ringer’s lactate and 300 ml of normal saline subcutaneously, and then we fed her blended fish using a 50 ml syringe, to remind her of her natural food’s taste,” says Supraja.

 Volunteers cleaning the turtles. | Sunish P Surendran
 Volunteers cleaning the turtles. | Sunish P Surendran

Mr Besant sir, an older Olive ridley, also has as similar story of pain and happy recovery. He was brought to the centre by SSTCN (Students Sea turtle network) volunteers early on March 1st, last year. He was found entangled in a fishing net, which made him lose his right front flipper, and thus stranded on the beach, severely dehydrated. With similar treatment for his wounds, and regular fluids dosage, he recovered quickly and started feeding on solids within three weeks of care. “When we fed him fish, he would take a bite, then immediately spit it out! But when John, a volunteer, got squid and shrimp for him, he devoured it completely! That’s how we called him Besant ‘sir’, because he was royalty,” laughs Supraja.

Taking care of over 50 turtles since 2010, the centre has now formed a protocol of treatment and care for the different injuries that can occur. Majority of turtles face flipper injuries due to trawl fishing nets or boat propellers, despite there being a stringent law that trawl fishing nets are banned 5 km from the coastline. Turtles being air-breathing reptiles, they have to surface above the water every 40 minutes. And this is the time when they are vulnerable. This season, there was good nesting along the crucial migratory path along the Eastern coast, with a good 3.6 lakh eggs being protected, which Supraja attributes to less fishermen activity during the months of December and January, due to the prevailing political and climatic scenario in the city during the time.

Taking care of injured sea turtles is a laborious task, the centre currently has nine turtles recovering from various injuries, all caused by some human activity. Each day, the recuperating turtles are cleaned with their own brush and some turmeric, whilst their respective tank also gets a clean flush of sea water collected from the beach. There is also the additional task of coercing the turtles to accept treatment. “Few turtles don’t like being in a tank, and keep hitting themselves against its walls. We have now started using rubber tubes along the edges to prevent this. Every turtle teaches us lessons on how to help and care for them better.”  

TURTLE TIPS

What to do when you find an injured turtle
-First check if the turtle is alive, by touching the turtle near its eyes and check movement. If it’s dead, the neck and eyes will be swollen or bulged. For rescue help call Supraja : 9444052242

-Senior Sea Turtle Protection Force member and conservation co-ordinator Pugalarasan will take the ambulance, with the tank and emergency medical kit. Veterinary college will check with X-rays and treatment.

TREATMENT AT TREE

Tree foundation was founded in 2002, by Supraja Dharini, after she was inspired by Jane Goodall’s belief that “Every individual can make a difference’. When she encountered a dead turtle on the shores of Neelangarai, and was surprised by the nonchalance of the locals to frequency and common occurrence of turtle deaths. Supraja then pursued a Sea turtle biology and conservation policy course in Duke University, North Carolina. The TREE Foundation now covers a stretch of 1000 km, covering 228 villages along the east coasts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. They have now gained official recognition as Sea Turtle Protection Force (STPF) as part of their community-based sea turtle conservation program.

WHEN CAN YOU SEE ARIBADA?

The mass nesting of turtles in beaches is called Aribada, meaning arrival in Spanish. This happens only in three places in the whole world - Costa Rica, Gulf of Mexico, and Odisha.

(To watch both Punarvi and Besant sir go back to their ocean home this Sunday, May 7, head to the Rescue and Rehabilitation centre, 5/25 Blue Beach Road, Neelankarai)

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