Sea turtle conservation in India started with turtle walks in Madras (now Chennai) on the east coast in the early 1970s and coincidentally at about the same time in Gahirmatha, Orissa, at one of the largest rookeries for olive ridley turtles in the world. Started by a group of enthusiasts, the turtle walks and conservation activities on the Chennai coast continued through state agencies (Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and Forest Department) for about a decade.
In 1988, the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) was formed and has, for the last 25 years, run a conservation programme centred around its sea turtle hatchery. Kartik Shanker talks to Romulus Whitaker, the founder of the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trusts (MCBT), not to mention the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) and the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET). Best known for his work on snakes and crocodiles, Rom played a crucial role in starting the turtle walks and talks about the early days.
KS: I’ve probably asked you about this many times since we first met when I was working with the SSTCN in Madras in the late 1980s… What was the scene like in the 1970s? Why did you guys decide to do turtle walks and where did the idea come from?
RW: I’ve probably told you this already that by 1973 or so, the Snake Park was already well-established; almost a million people a year were already coming there. After we moved to Guindy Deer Park in the city, someone brought in a female ridley that they’d found on the beach. I think he was a fisherman. He said, “This is the kind of thing that you guys do, right? I mean, turtles and crocodiles?” So he had it right. We realised of course that we couldn’t keep the turtle. But it was kind of a fun thing for all of us to do—to go to Elliot’s beach, which was the closest to the Snake Park and release the turtle.
KS: And you didn’t know at that point that ridleys nested on this coast?
RW: No idea, no idea at all.
KS: And you guys didn’t know about the rookery in Orissa either?
RW: No. Wasn’t that later?
KS: Robert Bustard visited Orissa in 1974 and discovered the rookery at Gahirmatha. But, J C Daniels and Hussain of BNHS apparently had heard of a turtle rookery in Orissa and that’s 1973.
RW: Yeah, I do know that they—Daniels and Hussain—were the first to mention Gahirmatha.
KS: So when you guys saw that first ridley, you had no idea that ridleys were nesting in Madras or anywhere else?
KS: That’s quite a coincidence, that you were independently discovering ridleys in Orissa and Madras.
RW: If we had known, we would have looked into it and realised that ridleys were one of the main turtles nesting on this coast, but we didn’t have any information.
KS: Then you guys started the turtle walks and the hatchery, right?
RW: Yeah, I think it must have coincided with other reports of people from Cholamandalam . We knew some artists there like S.G. Vasudev, Thambi (S. Nandagopal) who would say “Hey man, we saw a turtle!” And then, it sort of started clicking, that from December or January onwards, that’s the time the turtles nest. And that’s when the turtle walks started. Initially, it was informants— people who were just interested in coming around who went on walks. But then we really did it in a somewhat systematic way… I mean, all the way to Kalpakkam, 50 kilometres away.
KS: So, who were the people who would have been part of the first season?
RW: A bunch of us including my sister, Nina and her (now) husband, Ram Menon, Zai Whitaker, Jean and Janine Delouche, Anne Joseph, Wendy Bland. And Valliappan, who worked in Central Leather Research Institute across the road from the Snake Park. Not only was he on those first turtle walks collecting eggs and dissuading poachers, but he took the first pictures of the sea turtle slaughter at the Tuticorin Market which mobilised the Forest Department to clamp down. The turtle killers then started the “Turtle Blood Drinkers Association” to try to fight the ban—but they failed.
KS: So, what was his connection with you?
RW: He was bored with what he was doing— almost all these guys were. They were just bored with their IIT and CLRI and ABC College and God knows what else, and they just didn’t want to do their thing. It was much more fun hanging out with us. They didn’t know anything about reptiles.
RW: And sea turtle walking, it was more fun than college. I mean, there were few other things you could do. Yeah, we could go snake hunting with Irulas, but this was something that was very cool, you know? There weren’t many party scenes happening probably at the time either, so it was a good thing to do in the evening. But, we took it very seriously. And we did sections, you know, from Thiruvanmiyur south, and up to Neelankarai and further. We were doing 10-15 kilometres in one day, then often we’d just get wiped and go to the main road and take a bus back. But sometimes we’d walk all the way back—like 30 kilometers —fairly serious walking. And we dreamed about camels and dune buggies and any number of things, when we were plodding along, stepping on human shit and stuff like that.
KS: Yeah, so there’s a paper written in 1973 by Valliappan and Pushparaj. I’ve never encountered Pushparaj either.
RW: He was one of the kids I hired when he was probably about 15 or 16, out there in Rajakilpakkam, along with Motorcycle Mani who’s probably still at the Snake Park or was until recently. Two or three teenage kids started working for me. Pushparaj hung around the Snake Park when it was based in Selaiyur, that’s where he lived too. He was hard working, and accompanied me and others on field work. Later, he joined the Tamil Nadu Forest Department as a guard.
In the early 1970s, when the Madras Snake Park moved to Guindy, it became a local hangout for young folks from nearby campuses like Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, the AC College of Architecture and the Madras Christian College (MCC). Even up to 30 years later, I would run into some of these guys in strange places. They’re now mostly as paunchy and balding as I am and we trade a few stories and get into a laughing fit over “the good old days”.
KS: Did you have a hatchery the first year you started the walks?
RW: It must have happened right on, because otherwise, why would we be walking? We’d be going to collect eggs before the poachers got them, basically.
KS: And you said that the first hatchery you had was at Jean–
RW: and Janine Deloche’s …in their yard. We built a fence with Casuarina poles and stretched bits of chainlink fencing and chicken mesh we had scrounged from here and there, mainly to keep the dogs out. We found that many nests on the beach were being dug up by dogs and jackals. We were careful to measure the original nest holes, and when we reburied the eggs, we tried to make a nest hole as similar as possible to the original.
KS: How many nests did you collect?
RW: We collected all of 11 nests in the first year. Over the next few years, we rescued about 20,000 ridley eggs from poachers and dogs. We released more than 10,000 hatchings and it made us all feel real good. “This is conservation action”, we thought, as we patted ourselves on the back. In later years, when we learned about temperature sex determination, we realised our approach should have been a bit more scientific.
KS: Of course, you couldn’t have known then that sex was determined by temperature in sea turtles.
RW: Bloody things, like any snake eggs, they’d incubate under the ground, and they’d hatch and you let them go, you know? And then suddenly, these buggers come up with this finding that incubation temperatures determine hatchling sex. That wasn’t till what…mid-80s or late 80s, I think.
KS: Late 1970s, mid-80s
RW: It was so cool to give a talk at that time about it, because anybody who knew anything about genetics or anything else would say “No, no! It’s not linked to the temperature, you idiot! It’s chromosomally linked, it’s got nothing to do with temperature!”
KS: Yes, I’ve experienced that when giving talks in schools in the late 1980s. Biology teachers were the most suspicious. Anyway, the other seminal event for me and probably for many people, is the fact that Satish Bhaskar got involved. Do you remember your first encounter with Satish?
RW: Actually I don’t. I’d like to make up something like “Sunday! It was a glorious day…it had just rained”, but no.
KS: Well, it’s amazing how people remember him. I’ve had many conversations with fellow students of his from IIT from that time and they say something like “Oh, you work on turtles! You know, back in the 70s when I was in IIT, there was this guy from IIT, who used to go on the beach and look at turtles and I’ve gone out on a turtle walk with him”. I mean, it was Satish, of course—and I keep running into these people from all over.
RW: Satish was already a legendary ‘aquaman.’ He was a soft-spoken engineering student, a nondrinker and non-smoker, a real ascetic compared to the rest of us. His passion was the sea and he spent more time swimming than in the IIT classroom. He’d run from IIT to Elliot’s Beach (a distance of 7 kilometres) every morning, swim for a couple of hours and run back to the campus, ostensibly to attend class. Opportunely (for the turtles), Satish was getting disenchanted with his IIT course and yearned to be a field man with a mission.
The thing I do remember is that when we were talking about what he could do, he said, “I’m really interested in the coast, I’m really interested in marine biology, I’d probably end up doing that.” At that time, I was being quite selfish or autocratic or whatever, and thought that there should be one person for each taxa—and that person should just do everything they can to make that taxa happen, and you know… the conservation of it, or whatever. And I said to him, “If you just concentrate on sea turtles, you’ll become “Mr. Sea Turtle”. Because there’s nobody else doing it. You know, elsewhere there’s Archie Carr and there’s George Hughes and all these great turtle people.” And Satish probably wondered, “What the hell’s this guy ranting about?” But he eventually read all these reprints that we’d started collecting. And I didn’t know it then, but Satish ended up walking almost the entire coastline of India, thousands of kilometers, giving us the very first handle on what turtles were nesting, where and what kind of numbers.
KS: Did you know what others were doing elsewhere?
RW: I have to say we were writing a lot of snail mail in those days to quite a few people around the world who were into sea turtles. As soon as we’d found out a bit about the ridleys and we realised “Shit, man… we don’t know anything, we better find out what other people are doing”. So I guess it had a lot to do with my sister Nina and Brenda, my secretary who eventually married Satish, and all these girls. They were typing all the letters and the posting that you don’t even do nowadays—and getting feedback from all these fantastic, wonderful people from all over the world… who sent their reprints, folded carefully, and their notes—coming all the way to India and stuff… and that was the thing that got us excited about continuing, because there were other people doing things much more seriously than we were.
KS: So how did Satish get started?
RW: When he started hanging out at the Snake Park, we talked seriously about doing turtle surveys along other beaches around the country. The Snake Park had a tiny research budget but it was enough to hire Satish as Field Officer and get him out on his first few survey trips. When the fledgling World Wildlife Fund (WWF) saw the good work he was doing for endangered sea turtles, Satish landed his first grant which really set him in motion. After our first visits to the Andamans in the mid-1970s, I encouraged Satish to go there (we raised the funds for his travels) and start what became almost a decade of survey work for him. In 1978, Satish visited the Andaman & Nicobar Islands for the first time and like so many of us, got hooked. Over the next few years, again thanks to WWF and other funds, he visited many of the islands and most of the major sea turtle nesting beaches in the islands.
KS: And the rest of the Indian coast, and the Lakshadweep, and West Papua….
RW: I can’t imagine another human being on the planet who could have achieved what Satish did in those years.
KS: Tell us about the Lakshadweep adventure.
RW: In 1977, Satish first went to Lakshadweep and felt that the uninhabited island of Suhelipara was the place for a green sea turtle study. The only problem was that the main nesting period is during the monsoon and no one goes there when the sea is so rough. In 1982, Satish came up with a scheme to maroon himself (with WWF funding) on Suhelipara for the whole monsoon, from May to September. That way he could collect data on green sea turtle nesting for the entire period. It also meant making elaborate preparations, like calculating the amount of food he would need. We sat with Satish and talked about things that could go wrong during this isolation—chronic toothache, appendicitis, malaria were just a few sobering thoughts. The Navy did provide some signal flares and there was talk of a radio, but eventually Satish just set sail and that’s the last we heard of him till September. Actually that’s not true. A few months after he was dropped on Suhelipara, his wife Brenda back in Madras, received a letter from a Sri Lankan fisherman enclosing a loving note from Satish that the fisherman had found floating in a bottle. We had always speculated whether that would really work! He had launched his message in a bottle on July 3rd. 24 days and 750 kilometres later, the bottle was picked up.
The emergency situation that arose on the deserted isle is something none of us could have predicted: a huge dead whale shark washed up on Satish’s little island and started rotting. The nauseous stench became so overpowering that our intrepid sea turtle man had to move to the extreme other end of the tiny island to a somewhat precarious wave-lashed spit of sand.
KS: Remarkable. The only survey of Suheli that has been done since then is a brief survey in the early 2000s by the Wildlife Institute of India. And plenty of adventures in the Andamans too, right?
RW: Yes, another mythological Satish exploit was his many months sojourn, over several years, on tiny South Reef Island on the West coast of North Andaman. He was studying the hawksbill and green turtle population there, but it was tough with no freshwater and of course, no food. He would swim the half kilometre of vicious currents to Interview Island to collect freshwater and swim back with his load. Once though, he ran into one of the notorious feral elephants of Interview which promptly charged. As he ran down the forest path, he threw his shirt down which fortunately distracted the angry pachyderm. Next day, he swam back to Interview to retrieve his jerry can and found his shirt, in three pieces. He posted the pieces back to Brenda with a reassuring note. Bonny, a heavyset Karen who worked for the Andaman Forest Department, was based in Mayabunder. He was so devoted, he delivered rations to Satish braving very choppy monsoon seas. Once he crashed his dhongi and had to repair it to go back to Mayabunder. All these people were so heroic and yet so self-effacing.
KS: Amazing. So, moving on to a slightly later phase in the Madras turtle walks, how did Anne Ahimaz get involved in the turtle walks?
RW: She was Anne Joseph then, my secretary at the Snake Park. Annie was one of those rare girls who could work with a gang of boys with complete confidence, and she had the energy to keep up on those long grueling beach walks. Plus she had a daytime job at the Snake Park, so it was a tough, but exciting life
KS: Yes, I’ve heard Shekar Dattatri talk highly of her enthusiasm in organising the turtle walks in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I think he and Vijaya were really active along with her during that period.
RW: Shekar was deeply involved with Snake Park work from the late 1970s onward and was at the forefront of the sea turtle work, along with Vijaya (Viji). Viji was another star researcher. We were then in touch with freshwater turtle man Ed Moll of Eastern Illinois University in the States. In the mid-80s, Viji assisted Ed in doing freshwater turtle surveys. She went up to Orissa and West Bengal and she got some pretty amazing but terrifying pictures of the ridley harvest with the little Minolta film camera we had given her. The turtle slaughter was an annual event up there: they were harvested by the hundreds and even thousands, and being trucked up to the Calcutta market from Digha. Published in India Today, these pictures shook the government out of its lethargy and made them protect the turtle populations. Ed later encouraged Viji to go to the States to do her Master’s degree. Vijaya died tragically when she was still in her twenties.
KS: Quite an amazing cast of characters. Any words of advice for the young enthusiasts going on turtle walks ?
RW: Well, times have changed and perhaps the first inkling was when a small group of turtlers was stopped by a group of ‘rowdies’ who were pretty drunk and abusive in the early 1980s. Only one of our guys had a watch, which was quickly taken, and they also lost the few rupees they had. But it was a scary event and we were just happy that none of the girls were along that night. It’s good to have a savvy local person or two with you on turtle walks. Involving interested local village youth is not only the safest way to do field work, it spreads the word!
Also, while it’s very satisfying to have a protected hatchery and to be able to watch all the baby turtles hatch out and take them to the sea, it can be argued that it’s better to simply transplant the nest to a place a few metres from where it is found. Chances are animal and human predators won’t find the new site and the problem of temperature related sex determination in a hatchery need not be worried about.
I think the work we started back in the early 1970s has had a positive effect on sea turtle conservation in India, mostly by waking us all up to the plight of these wonderful but beleagured creatures. By protecting the breeding base of India’s sea turtle population, by waking up people all along India’s coast to the problems facing turtles we’ve seen a lot of dedicated young biologists and naturalists getting seriously involved. I do believe all these efforts have helped save our sea turtles and it’s very encouraging to see that the interest persists and that the turtle walks and outreach to coastal villages are still going strong!
Photograph: Valliappan, Franz Ranache, Samir Whitaker, Janaki Lenin