"In November 2001, I happened to watch a National Geographic documentary on world-famous environmentalist Dr Jane Goodall in which she said each and every individual can make a difference to the environment. If everyone does their part by making a small contribution, a lot of change can be witnessed," says Dr Supraja Dharini, chairperson of the TREE Foundation, an organization dedicated to the conservation of marine fauna on India’s east coast.
Supraja's journey from a successful artist to a sea turtle conservationist began with the sight of a dead turtle nearly two decades ago during a walk on the Periya Neelankarai beach. “I saw a turtle on the shore and walked towards it. I discovered that it was dead but the cause of death was not natural as it had a lot of cuts from sharp wires," says Supraja. On enquiring with fishermen in the locality, she found that it was common to spot dead turtles, especially between December and April.
The sight of the dead turtle left Supraja disturbed for a few days and Goodall's words kept ringing in her head. That's when she resolved that something should be done to save these turtles. “I decided that I would make a difference. But first I had to know more about the turtles and started reading about them. Later, I took 17 youngsters from the Neelankarai fishing hamlet and toured village after village explaining how important it is to protect the health and wealth of the ocean," she says.
That's how the TREE (Trust for Environment, Education, Conservation and Community Development) Foundation took shape in 2002 and slowly started engaging in community-based sea turtle conservation.
Supraja has received multiple awards like the Disney Worldwide Conservation Award, Sea World and the Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species Award in recognition of the efforts she has put in for sea turtle conservation.
The foundation has covered more than 700 km. "We work along the Kanchipuram coast in Tamil Nadu, entire Andhra Pradesh except for Visakhapatnam and Kakinada, as well as the Ganjam district in Odisha. We are the only community-based organisation involving locals not just in turtle conservation but also in marine conservation as a whole," she says.
Supraja was very clear that if there is to be a change in attitude towards sea conservation, then people from various strata should come together. Regular awareness programmes and clean-up drives have not only brought fishermen, college students and IT professionals together to conserve turtles but also helped bring a change in the attitude of the local community towards turtles and other marine creatures.
Supraja's efforts were focused on winning the trust of the local fishing community to spread awareness. Later, she roped in more youngsters from villages like Periya Neelankarai, Pannayur and Injambakkam to expand the working of the foundation. This led to the setting up of strong protection squads on the beaches under the banner of the Sea Turtle Protection Force which comprises over 165 fisherfolk living along the Coromandel coast. They were trained to identify places where turtles lay eggs, move them to a hatchery where the eggs are kept safe for the 48-day gestation period and finally lead the emerging hatchlings safely to the sea.
"My entire perspective about the ocean and its life forms changed after I met Dr Supraja. When I was younger, I did not know about sea turtles. So I would dig out their eggs and use them as a ball to play cricket. They have a very soft shell unlike other eggs and bounce off the ground. I still remember when I met her for the first time, I asked several questions like why we should put turtles back in the sea and why they should be protected," adds TA Pugalarasan, a Sea Turtle Protection Force member from Periya Neelankarai fishing hamlet.
"People should realise that our actions make an impact on all marine lives in the ocean. We have to understand that there is a connection between the land and ocean. If the balance of the ocean is disturbed, there will be a great impact on land as well. We should make simple lifestyle changes so that future generations of marine life forms can not just survive but also flourish," adds Supraja.