Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sea turtles: Global Ambassadors of Conservation

(Today is World Turtle Day and we are posting a series of posts related to turtles on our blog today. Learn about turtles, download our book 'Turtle Story', learn about organisations working in the field of turtle conservation and learn how we can help the conservation effort.There are seven known species of turtles in this world’s oceans and all are listed as either endangered or threatened.)

Kartik Shanker is faculty at Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and at Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore. He served as the President of the International Sea Turtle Society during 2009-10 and organised its annual symposium in Goa in April this year.He is also the author of 'TURTLE STORY' published by Pratham Books. He helped initiate the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network, in the late 1980s in Chennai, when he saw his first sea turtle.

Thank you, Kartik, for your post below about sea turtles, the global ambassadors of conservation.

"If you happen to be on a sandy beach at night, any sandy beach in a warm enough part of the world, at the right time of the year, you might encounter an ancient reptile engrossed in a ritual it has repeated for millions of years. Enigmatic and mysterious, these marine turtles spend all their life at sea and only emerge on land to lay their eggs and disappear again. During the nesting season, they crawl ashore and lay more than a hundred eggs, digging a small two to three feet deep nest in the sand, and return to the sea. After nesting a few times, they will swim thousands of kilometres away to feeding grounds where they will stay till it is time to nest again. The eggs incubate by themselves under the sand for several weeks and after about two months, begin to hatch. The hatchlings crowd under the sand and then emerge together as a mass and make a mad dash to the sea under the cover of darkness, finding it by the reflection of starlight and moonlight on water. The little turtles, barely the size of a human palm, then spend a decade or longer floating on currents accross ocean basins, till they become juveniles or adults, and return to the same nesting beaches to nest again.

One December night in 1988, I crouched on a beach in Chennai, watching an olive ridley crawl labouriously up beach and painstakingly dig her nest with her hind flippers. Ten years later, I stood stunned on a beach in Orissa while tens of thousands of olive ridleys did the same, during a mass nesting or 'arribada'. That year, we counted more than 100,000 olive ridley turtles over four days. They are the smallest of sea turtles along with Kemps ridleys, found only in Mexico. Today, Kemps ridleys may be threatened by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea turtles today are threatened by a variety of direct and indirect threats. They are killed as bycatch in mechanised fishing, their nesting habitats are destroyed by coastal development, their eggs are taken by feral animals and humans, and climate change looms large over their future. At the same time, many groups in India and across the world are working towards their conservation. The 30th Annual Symposium for Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation was held recently in Goa in India, bringing together over 500 people from across the world. In India, the Turtle Action Group (TAG) is a network of non governmental organisations from across the country who come together to work towards sea turtle conservation. This includes groups from every coastal state in the country.

Sea turtles are global ambassadors of conservation. The theme of this year's symposium was the 'world of turtles'. The world includes the many ecosystems and habitats, the sandy beaches, the seagrass meadows, the coral reefs and open seas. The fishing communities, the many cultures, and the incredible diversity of peoples and activities along the coasts of the world. Sea turtles undertake extraordinary oceanic journeys as hatchlings, survive all kinds of odds and return to their natal beaches to nest as adults. In order to save sea turtles, we must save all these habitats across national boundaries, and ensure the welfare of the many coastal resource dependent communities. Sea turtles are thus the most charismatic flagships for coastal and marine biodiversity.

In a world of growing threat from human activities, they need the concerted effort of all people – students, scientists, local communities, government, NGOS, corporations – to save them and their habitats."

Thanks, Kartik, and we hope more children get to see their first sea turtle soon too!

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