Rooting For Turtles: Supraja Dharini Wins International Award For Conservation 

CHENNAI, India — Chennai-based Supraja Dharini had just begun taking steps towards creating awareness on coastal conservation, particularly towards the preservation of the Olive Ridley sea turtle, when she came across T.A. Pugalarasan, a young fisherman who was gently letting a sea turtle, which had washed ashore, back into the ocean.

Dharini took him under her wing, involving him in her early outreach and education programs in the fishing community.

Almost two decades later, Pugalarasan continues to be associated with her on the Sea Turtle Protection Force from Neelankarai in Tamil Nadu, a south Indian state.

“I had been a fisherman for 10 years and had only been taking from the ocean. By involving myself in sea turtle conservation, protecting nesting turtles, and helping hatchlings to the sea, it will be my way of thanking the ocean,” he said.

Dharini’s continuous work has been rewarded with international laurels and recognition. The most recent accolade was from The Explorers Club — a global non-profit dedicated to field research and exploration — which has named her one of ‘The Explorers Club 50’ or EC50.

These 50 individuals are making a significant impact within their communities across the globe.

The EC50 judges reviewed over 400 nominations from 48 countries. In addition to conservationists like Dharini, the list includes a broad range of individuals from biologists and archeologists to educators and entrepreneurs.

“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,” said Dharini, who is the Founder and Chairperson of Chennai-based TREE Foundation.

“Being the first woman from South India to be named to EC50 is an honor. This is great news not only for us but for sea turtle conservation in India,” she said.

“Much of what has been achieved is with support from the forest departments of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, the Indian Coast Guard, and the Marine Police.

Supraja Dharini in Chennai. (TREE Foundation)

“Ours is a community-based sea turtle conservation program, and this work has involved the dedication and hard work of 363 Sea Turtle Protection Force members and the involvement of the 222 fishing village communities along India’s southeast coast.”

Born and raised in Tamil Nadu capital Chennai, Dharini was concerned by the growth of information technology parks, shopping malls, and a consumerist society that cares little for the environment.

In stark contrast, the fishing villages still hand pump their drinking water and have power cuts for 10 hours a day, yet live in harmony with nature, depending on the ocean for their livelihoods.

“I was drawn to the ocean as a child. My childhood quest to know my purpose in life led me to study Indian Philosophy, which explained how I should see myself in all beings. This revelation paved the way for my environmental work,” she said.

“One morning in December 2001, as I was walking along the seashore of the Periya Neelankarai fishing village near my home, I saw something large, washed ashore. I realized it was a dead sea turtle, which had injuries.

“The fishermen there said turtles die after getting entangled in the trawl nets of mechanized boats during the December-March breeding season each year. Upset, I decided to do what I could, to prevent more sea turtles from dying.”

Soon, she learned that 90 percent of the sea turtle population was already extinct. It became imperative to conserve the few remaining turtles and their habitats. Scientists believe that only one out of 1,000 hatchlings that enter the sea will survive to reproduce.

“We learned a lot through outreach programs, and have worked to educate fishing communities across coastal Tamil Nadu on how the lives of sea turtles and fishermen are closely intertwined. Sea turtles are a vital part of the marine food chain and keep the ocean healthy by regulating the needs of other organisms as prey and consumer. Fewer sea turtles would mean disruption in the food chain and an adverse impact on underwater flora and fauna,” said Pugalarasan (in Tamil).

Supraja Dharini with Pugalarasan (TREE Foundation)

“Initially, they didn’t understand why, because they were focused on short-term gains, but they were willing to volunteer to protect sea turtles with training and workshops from Supraja and her team. So, the Sea Turtle Protection Force grew from there.”

K Someshwar Rao, Sea Turtle Protection Force coordinator for Srikakulam, and his wife Chandini have immersed themselves in taking forward Dharini’s mission on the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh.

“We had no idea about sea turtle conservation, though we’ve been living on the sea coast,” he said (in Telugu).

“As a community, we used to wonder why turtles come and nest here, what use is it to us and the ocean. In 2017, one of our members set up a small hatchery in my village in Srikakulam. I volunteered there. I traveled to all the coastal villages, with the then coordinator, and explained the full benefits of sea turtles in the coastal ecosystem.”

Rao was a teacher, but today, he is involved full-time in coastal conservation. When the coordinator wasn’t able to travel anymore, he took over as the coordinator for that village. Chandini spends her time educating women and families on the importance of water conservation, and how plants can help the ecosystem.

“We present biodiversity education programs at local schools with presentations on various life forms. Coastal clean-ups and river and pond cleanings are organized, where we remove plastic and also educate children on the importance of eliminating plastic waste and looking for more sustainable alternatives.”

The local coastal communities were unaware of the protection laws for turtles. Rampant poaching of turtle eggs, and in a few areas, poaching of the adult turtles, for consumption, continued. Therefore, awareness programs were arranged jointly with the forest department and the fisheries department in every village.

“The ocean [through marine plants] gives us 70 percent of the air we breathe, indirectly much of the water we drink, and is the main food source for over one billion people,” said Dharini.

Supraja with Dr Eugenie Clark at Mote Marine Lab, USA. (TREE Foundation)

“People are not uncaring, they are just unaware. So, reaching out to as many people to teach the interconnectedness of our lives with that of the ocean is the cornerstone of our conservation program.”

As Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots voluntary coordinators for India, the TREE Foundation networks with more than 50,000 students who are involved in different eco programs such as water body restoration, biodiversity education, and marine mammal conservation. They are also creating a biodiversity education center to explain the importance of preserving terrestrial and marine biodiversity to tens of thousands of people each year.

With falling fish stocks and increasing fishing pressure from trawl boats, artisanal fishing communities risk falling further into poverty. Through establishing the Sea Turtle Protection Force program, TREE Foundation has given artisanal fishermen — those who use traditional, low-tech fishing practices — a secure long-term alternative income to fishing.

“Knowing that people who may have once intentionally hunted and killed turtles or poached eggs are now working to protect the very species they once harmed, shows that with the right attitude and hard work, the seemingly impossible can be made possible,” said Dharini.

(Edited by Anindita Ghosh and Amrita Das. Map by Urvashi Makwana)

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