NAGAPATTINAM: It is still dark before daybreak when Natesan quietly saunters along the sandy shore of Kodiyakarai beach in Nagapattinam. With the crashing waves for company, he switches on his trusty hand torch to reveal train track-like trails leading to the sea. He’s on the lookout for sand mounds, recently dug up. It takes an expert like Natesan to know the unassuming mounds contained a nest of dozens of eggs that had been just laid by the endangered Olive Ridley turtles.
62-year-old M Natesan, a fisherman who now works as an Olive Ridley turtle egg collector, knows everything about the species he safeguards. “We need to keep the eggs safe from jackals and from people who may crush them while walking on the beach after sunrise,” he explains. With great care, Natesan digs all of the eggs out. He ferries them in a basket to the fenced hatchery located near the beach, careful not to break them. He digs a shallow pit and buries the eggs.
In 50 days, nature’s magic takes over and hatchlings surface out of the sand. Smaller than a palm, they will emerge, ash black with soft shells and leaf-like flippers. While some remain unhatched, the others are scooped in a basket.
This is not the first turtle nest that Natesan has worked with and it certainly will not be the last. But, he didn’t always work with turtles. “We used to find turtles loathsome as they are considered bad omens.” This changed when he picked up a turtle on his palm. “They exhibit a strong spirit of survival. They struggle in the basket and thump into each other. They start walking towards the sea once they sense it,” he adds.
Much like an Olive Ridley turtle, the conserver too, has struggled in life. Belonging to a Dalit community and having recently converted to Christianity, Natesan is no stranger to battles against oppression. Now having become a seasoned forest department worker, Natesan regularly watches the turtles on their first swim, a few hours after they hatch. The department releases them towards the sea in batches of hundreds. The hatchlings make movements for a short distance before getting swept by waves.
“I know they will come back someday to lay their eggs, after some 15 years. I may or may not be around to see their lives come full circle,” he adds. What Natesan calls a full circle, scientists term the tendency of the turtles’ ‘Site Fidelity’. For several years, Natesan has collected and nurtured thousands of eggs and bid them goodbye as hatchlings. As a fisher, he has also helped several adult turtles by cutting out nets they get entangled in.
Natesan and his wife Rathinam have lived their lives by the sea. In the 70s, Natesan used to paddle his catamaran for a couple of nautical miles to fish. In the 90s, he had managed to acquire a motorised boat before selling that off. In 2007, he was recruited as an anti-poaching watcher and worked there till he retired in 2019. Over the years, Natesan mentions he has worked hard to support his wife and two sons. Just as the turtles he sees every day, his sons have moved on in life and have families of their own.
Meanwhile, Natesan is well known in his area for his love for turtles. M Durgeswaran, a fisher-representative from Kodiyakarai says, “Natesan works so religiously, that our men also take active interests in informing him about turtle nests.”
The department pays him for four to five months of nesting season, under a separate scheme. “The rest of the months, I pick plastics and sell them for a living. My pay gets delayed, and so does the pension,” Natesan grieves. However, he adds that it does not make him any less interested in conserving the turtles.
Chief Conservator of Forests N Sathish adds, “Local elders like Natesan contribute with experience and dedication immensely as we try to conserve the vulnerable species. The number of turtle hatchlings released in the Nagapattinam district has risen over the years due to the joint efforts.”
Olive Ridley Turtles have been listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Often, over a hundred adult turtles fight to survive on their long way back to the shore to lay eggs. Either chance, or human encroachments take their lives, near Vedaranyam. Unsustainable fishing practices such as not adding a turtle excluder device in trawlers are a threat to these turtles. Vedaranyam, the closest to Palk Strait, records the highest number of turtle deaths.