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Baby steps towards the ocean...

Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles nest along the sandy beaches of the East coast of India. They share their offshore habitat with hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas,). Since the 1970’s there has been a 90% reduction in nesting numbers of the Olive Ridley turtle (R. Whitaker, 1979) say the marine conservation activist Dr. Supraja Dharini, she is also a founder of NGO called TREE Foundation in 2002, that was inspired, and is still today, guided, by Dr. Jane Goodall DBE.

Dr. Supraja, who was also honoured by an American-based Explorers Club as one among its "50 People Changing the World”, calls it a great news for sea turtle conservation in India. "Receiving this prestigious award puts our country firmly on the conservation map and shows the world that we are making an effort to protect our marine heritage and wildlife. Being the first woman from south India is truly an honour,” she says.

TREE Foundation established community based sea turtle conservation programs to educate and engage marginalized artisanal fishing communities from a large number of villages along the east coast of India in Tamil Nadu initially and subsequently Andhra Pradesh and Odisha protecting nearly 700kms of nesting habitat coastline.

Through the three states, 363 local young fishermen, who previously were turtle egg poachers and school dropouts, are now engaged as Sea Turtle Protection Force (STPF) members. Their efforts to protect sea turtles have been recognised at international level and also provide an alternate income.

The breeding and nesting season for the olive ridley is between the months of December to April inclusive. Turtles migrate from their various feeding grounds, which are spread across ocean boundaries, to congregate a few kilometers off-shore from their natal beaches for mating. They then return to the very beach from which they themselves emerged to lay their nests. Female sea turtles are the only marine species that come ashore to lay nests and thus truly are the connection between the land and the ocean. It is during this time that breeding turtles become very vulnerable due to the high threat of interactions with commercial and artisanal fishers and their gear. A high number of dead and live stranded adult olive ridleys are recorded along the east coast between January and March each year.

Though the nesting turtles and their eggs are being monitored on the protected beaches, it has become equally important to protect the turtles in their ocean habitat as well. To do so, TREE Foundation works jointly with the Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department, the Department of Fisheries of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, the Indian Coast Guard and the Marine Police.

TREE Foundation is expanding its current program to protect turtles at sea and minimize accidental catch of sea turtles during fishing activities, in order to reduce mortality of turtles coming to nest, in addition to protecting turtle nesting sites and turtle eggs. Sea turtles have a very high mortality rate in their early years with only 1 in 1000 hatchlings reaching reproductive adulthood according to many scientists.

TREE Foundation also runs the first of its kind Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre for sea turtles in India, with special permission from the Chief Wildlife Wardens of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. When the Foundation receives information about a sea turtle that has been stranded or hurt, it rescues and rehabilitates the turtle in the R&R Centre with the help of STPF members and volunteers. Once the turtle is rehabilitated, it is released back to the ocean.

Highlighted achievements:
1. Released more than 28,00,000 Olive Ridley hatchlings (baby turtles) successfully to the sea. 2. Trained and developed a Sea Turtle Protection Force of over 316 members from 222 fishing villages. 3. Rescue/rehabilitation of 50 adult and juvenile Olive Ridley, 7 juvenile Green and 5 Hawksbill turtles and two Spinner dolphins. 4. Rescued, untangled and released 827 Olive Ridley Green and Hawksbill Turtles from fishing nets (ray-fish and gill nets and ghost nets).

Dr. Supraja, believes a lasting legacy of TREE Foundation will be one of hope and a renewed compassion for nature for all those who have come to be part of TREE over the years. The lives protected and saved today, and those in the future will be our biggest legacy.

Those who are interested in this marine conservatory programs please contact treefoundation2002@gmail.com

Guru Vandan