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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 May, 2005, 23:18 GMT 00:18 UK
Tsunami a boon for endangered turtles
By Harsh Kabra
BBC News, Tamil Nadu

The highly endangered Olive Ridley turtles have had a safe breeding season this year along the coast of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Fishing boat destroyed by tsunami in Tamil Nadu, India
Fishing activity dropped sharply in the wake of the tsunami
Large numbers of the Lepidochelys oliveacea turtles are normally killed when they get entangled in trawler fishing nets.

But fishing activity in 2005 was significantly reduced because of last December's tsunami.

Fishermen lost their equipment in the disaster and were scared to venture out to sea.

As a result, very few turtle deaths were reported during the November-April breeding and nesting period.

Conservation organisations like the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, the Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) and the Tree Foundation reported nearly double the number of Olive Ridley nests along the coast of the state capital Chennai and released twice the number of hatchlings into the sea this year than in the previous years.

The Chennai coast is the second biggest habitat of this species after the East Indian state of Orissa, where up to 800,000 turtles mate and nest every winter.

T Krishnamoorthy, a senior manager with Child Relief and You, has been actively associated with the rehabilitation efforts in the state's tsunami-stricken areas.

'Fear of the sea'

He says normal fishing activity has not resumed yet. "The fishermen have not been able to overcome the fear of the sea," says Mr Krishnamoorthy.

"Also, although the government has sanctioned money to help them make up for their loss, the affected fishermen have not been able to avail of the aid due to numerous pre-conditions."

Bucket containing unhatched turtle eggs
Olive Ridley turtle eggs are considered a delicacy in some parts
According to studies by non-governmental organisations, even six months after the disaster, about 60% of the total mechanised boats have gradually resumed fishing activity in the region.

Thankfully, this has happened much later in the breeding cycle of these turtles.

"While the livelihood of these fishermen is at stake due to reduced fishing activity, the marine ecology has been helped," says Mr Krishnamoorthy.

Among the most primitive living species, these turtles owe their name to the olive colour of their heart-shaped shells.

A protected species in India, they are the smallest of sea turtles, weighing 50kg (110 lb) each and measuring about 60 to 70cm (1.9 - 2.3 feet).

They come to the shore at night during high tide, dig cavities about 46cm deep, lay around 120 eggs each and cover the nest with sand.

Human threat

They return to the same nesting spots every year and usually nest three times between December and April.

"These sea turtles are primarily affected by fishing activity along the coast," says Adhith Swaminathan, of SSTCN.

"Rather than traditional fishermen, it is the trawlers that cause all the harm."

Olive Ridley turtles come ashore every 40 minutes to breathe and get caught in the trawling nets.

As these trawlers drag the nets for several kilometres, the turtles drown and die.

Fishermen are also known to kill these turtles because they get entangled in their nets and damage them.

Basket containing Olive Ridley hatchlings
Many turtles are killed when they get trapped in trawler nets
"The death toll peaks during the nesting season because these turtles migrate from distant places like Australia and mate next to the coast," says Mr Adhith.

Over the last decade, more than 120,000 dead turtles have been found in Orissa. Between December 2004 and February 2005 alone, over 5,000 dead turtles were washed ashore there.

Although mechanised trawlers have been banned in Orissa's turtle habitats, the law has not been enforced.

Turtle nests are also threatened by high tides or storms and natural predators.

But human threat is the most critical. "Sea turtles, especially the hatchlings, are drawn towards the brighter horizon," says Mr Adhith.

"While sea would normally be the brighter horizon, artificial lighting along the coast misleads hatchlings and adult turtles into going towards the road, where they get eaten by dogs or dehydrate and die."

Human encroachment onto the beach has forced these turtles to nest in the weeds or within the high tide line.

These turtles are also being increasingly poached as they are considered a delicacy in various parts of the world, their eggs sold as food and their shells used for ornamental purposes.

According to Tamil Nadu's wildlife authorities, the collection and sale of turtle eggs in the state is illegal.

However, some egg sellers said such eggs have been fetching them good money as buyers believe these eggs have a lot of nutritional value.

"But this year, business has been lukewarm," one of them said.

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