Failed Olive Ridley turtle nesting sparks conservation lessons in Kerala

It all started on April 7 when an expectant Olive Ridley Turtle made her way to the Shankhumukham beach to lay her eggs. After laying 81 of them, she returned to the sea.
The Olive Ridely Turtle leaves after laying the eggs
The Olive Ridely Turtle leaves after laying the eggs

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: An interesting story panned out on the Shankhumukham beach that caught the eye of not just nature lovers but the local people as well.

It all started on April 7 when an expectant Olive Ridley Turtle made her way to the Shankhumukham beach to lay her eggs. After laying 81 of them, she returned to the sea, as is the norm, letting nature nurture her eggs.

Turtles of her kind, who are part of a vulnerable species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), find sea shores along the Indian coasts to nest, especially along Odisha.

“In Kerala, they are mostly found in Chavakad, Kannur and Alappuzha regions. Dedicated groups are trying to conserve the species by making hatcheries and protecting the eggs,” says Professor A Biju Kumar, Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala.

Olive Ridley is one of the five turtles that come to Kerala, but its sighting in Thiruvananthapuram happened after a long time, if not the first time. “There are records of the sightings in Poovar area before. The female turtle finds a place on a sandy beach above High Tide Line, makes a pit, and lays eggs there after the sand is warm enough for the eggs to incubate,” says Biju Kumar. Usually, it takes 50-65 days for the eggs to hatch.

 In April, when the turtle came to lay the eggs, some fishermen alerted Ajith Shankhumukham, who has been at the forefront of saving whale sharks and coastal marine life along with the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). Ajith found the eggs on the shore, precariously close to waters that breach into the shore often.

Saving the eggs would mean shifting its position from the danger zone to somewhere safe and that place was found to be near the famed mandapam on the Shankhumukham beach. A pit was dug and the eggs were safely transported there. After covering them they were left to be insulated.

he place where Olive Ridley Turtle eggs were being hatched on the Shankhumukham Beach
he place where Olive Ridley Turtle eggs were being hatched on the Shankhumukham Beach Photo | Express

After that, the wait began. “We kept our guard on as each night passed. We had to protect the eggs from stray elements that would otherwise eat them. Then, we had to guard against the rise of water. Also, the heat was searing in the April-May season,” says Ajith.

He even formed a WhatsApp group of nature lovers to keep a tab on the eggs and to make people aware of the need to save the turtles. Information was shared on a day-to-day basis on the way the eggs were being shared.

“We got support from not just government officials and nature lovers, but people from all walks of life. Even the ‘arattu’ procession of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple was repositioned. To protect them from heat, we created a shade above the pit. I skipped work for 25 days to check on them,” says Ajith.

The anticipated period was fast approaching when the skies changed and it began to rain wetting the sand. Increased humidity is a threat to the eggs, which need to be incubated at a comfortably warm temperature.

The eggs showed no signs of hatching even after 50 days, disappointing the eager and waiting eyes.

“We were told that in the rainy season, it might take 64 days for the eggs to hatch. So we kept hope even as we checked them and found they were alive and intact. But even after 64 days when it didn’t hatch, we opened the pit and found that just two eggs of the lot showed signs of life. The rest all were lost,” says Ajith.

According to Professor Biju Kumar, the loss of the eggs could be due to the off-season hatching. “The time for hatching generally is November to February, when the sand would be warm enough. This time, the heavy rain increased the water content in the sand enough to spoil the eggs. Also, the position where the eggs were being kept could have been more secluded and away from possibilities of sea erosion or public glare.”  

But the nature lovers who are part of the ‘Save the Turtles’ collective say they have learnt their lessons from this exercise and will prepare themselves for future Olive Ridley nesting visits.

“We should have dug a bigger pit and covered it with a plastic covering. And then we could have nested the eggs in another layer of sand before closing the pit with the beach sand. Maybe the eggs could have been saved that way,” says Ajith.

The incident has only renewed their spirits to conserve marine life and coastal ecology, the group members add. “We are not going to dismantle our group,” says Ajith. They are going ahead to study and understand different ways the turtle eggs could be harvested and saved. “We also will scout the shores during the January to April season when the turtles come to the shores to nest,” says Ajith.

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