It was around two decades ago that Surendra Babu, an autorickshaw driver in Kolavipalam, a sleepy fishing village in Kozhikode district, read in a newspaper about the threats faced by endangered Olive Ridley turtles on the Gahirmatha coast in Orissa. Almost immediately, he realized that the turtles which arrived at Kolavipalam beach every year were the same species he was reading about.
Surendra Babu was a school dropout, but that was no impediment to him or to his poor fishermen friends in starting a unique initiative to help conserve the Olive Ridleys ' the Theeram Prakriti Samrakshana Samithy. During nesting season, spread over four winter months, they patrolled the beach by night looking for turtle nests. The idea was simple: the eggs had to be protected from predators, human and animal. So, freshly-laid eggs were carefully dug out from their original nests for immediate transfer to a makeshift hatchery. Fifty days later, when the two-inch long hatchlings struggled to the surface, they were gently released into the sea.
It wasn't easy. Most of the men had to sacrifice fishing time for the sake of the turtles. They were openly ridiculed and some were even manhandled as vested interests feared that the effort was a protest against a massive sand mining operation.
The news of the conservation programme, however, spread rapidly. An informal network of sympathizers brought news, and sometimes even eggs, of nesting events miles down the coast. The group now releases as many as 3,000 hatchlings into the sea every year. The villagers call them "the Turtle People".
Olive Ridleys have been coming to Kolavipalam for as long as Surendra Babu can remember. His first encounter with a turtle took place when he and his father were landing their fishing boat one early morning. As they walked towards the village, they saw a female Olive Ridley ponderously returning to the sea, leaving a tell-tale trail of flipper marks that pointed to where, under cover of darkness, she had buried her eggs. "To make up for our poor catch that day, we decided to collect the turtle eggs, and give ourselves a treat for lunch," recollects Babu. But the chance reading of the newspaper article changed all that. "It is believed that Ridley's invariably return to the beach where they were born to lay eggs," says Sajeevan, another activist. "The number of hatchlings we've released into the sea has increased each year. We dream that our beach will one day see an aribada (mass nesting). It may take 20 years, though ' who knows if this beach, even this village, will still be here."
There is good reason for this sense of doom. The beach at Kolavipalam was over a kilometer wide not many years ago. Today, it has been reduced to a rapidly shrinking strip. The people here say the beach, the turtles and their hamlet are threatened because of illegal sand mining. Every day, tonnes of fine sand from the sandbank are taken away to be used for construction work and land-filling. Ironically, sand mining is banned by the state government because of its adverse environmental impact.
With considerable effort and difficulty, the turtle people obtained a restraining order from the court on the mining, but it still continues, albeit not so openly. The villagers see the preservation of the turtles as an extension of their own struggle. "Everybody calls us the turtle people," says one of the activists, "but it is not us who are preserving the turtles but the turtles who have provided us a platform to voice our protest." While most of the activists are fishermen, there are also auto rickshaw drivers, teachers, boatmen and shop owners among them.
Even after a hectic day of fishing or daily-wage labor, they wholeheartedly participate in searching for eggs in the night and early morning. "The sea, the shore and the creatures along it are part of our daily life. We don't have to allot a specific time to protect them. We do that everyday as a routine, as our duty", says Vijayan, a fisherman.
In an official appreciation of their initiative, the state Forest Department has agreed to finance a hatchery for the eggs. The villagers, too, have stopped eating turtle eggs ever since they were told the eggs belonged to an endangered species.