Imagine the plight of a mother about to give birth but unable to find a peaceful maternity ward — who is instead held up by hordes of intruders, many hostile and almost , all ignorant. This is the situation confronting thousands of marine turtles who swim hundreds of miles through the ocean to lay their eggs on Karachi’s beaches.
Green Sea Turtles and the Olive Ridley Turtles show up on the shores of Pakistan to lay their eggs sporadically throughout the year, but the migration really peaks during the months of October and November, when turtles swim out of the sea and dig holes in the sand with their flippers to lay their eggs.
But the increasing human presence on beaches has resulted in deafening noise, disturbing lights and pollution. All this makes it difficult for these timid turtles — who usually flee at the sign of human presence — to find a suitable nesting place. More and more huts and buildings are built along the shore every year. The garbage heaps keep getting bigger and bigger, attracting more and more predators. Dogs, cats and rats patrol the shore and crows and eagles hover threateningly above. Many of these uninvited guests do not hesitate to dig up nests and eat the freshly laid eggs even as the female turtle heads slowly back to the water.
To give these turtles better odds of survival, the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD) has been running a programme of conservation and awareness. Its three hatcheries and limited manpower may just be a drop in the ocean, but it is the only organisation which directly assists in nesting and hatching. When launched in 1979, the comprehensive program was at par with international efforts encompassing harvesting, incubation and hatching of eggs and the release of hatchlings. Traditionally, the SWD tags the turtles to monitor their movement in international waters, collects eggs and keeps them at the hatcheries for incubation, and logs scientific data. Later, hatchlings are released into the sea. Often schoolchildren participate in these activities, witnessing the tiny turtles crawling towards the sea, taking their first steps towards a new life.
Private sector organisations sometimes abet the SWD’s efforts by initiating awareness campaigns and arranging turtle-watching trips for the public. This intervention provides the marine turtles a better chance amidst seemingly impossible odds: pollution, predators and deaths by interaction with picnickers.
Having observed nesting during the peak activity season for a number of years, I decided to take my family along with me this year. I wanted to inculcate a fondness for these animals in my two-and-a-half-year-old, and to let him release a few hatchlings into the sea.
But when I saw that no egg-collection activity was taking place at the beach, I was dismayed. When I asked the SWD folk, they told me that the fences of the hatcheries had broken down last year so no eggs could be buried till the contractors re-erected them. At the same time, the tagging of turtles, which does not require any enclosure, was also not taking place. The problem appeared to be not just a lack of funds, but apathy on the part of the employees and the lack of credibility that plagues Pakistan’s public. After all, conservation requires people who are willing to work at odd hours motivated, not by monetary gains, but by the inner joy and satisfaction it brings.
Unfortunately, on the shores of Karachi, the peak nesting season for 2011 will soon be over without a single hatchling released into the waters by schoolchildren, who are just starting to develop a love for animals. This experience is essential to allow children to learn of the struggles which lie ahead of hatchlings. No books, documentaries or speeches can recreate this bond or make up for the wealth of knowledge that is attained firsthand.
Another dismal revelation was that, for the first time in three decades, data on the nesting activity for Pakistan’s marine turtles would not be updated.
A number of measures can be undertaken towards safeguarding these turtles and increasing awareness. A volunteer force, supervised by the admittedly limited SWD personnel, can form an ideal team for this task. Partnership programmes that draw interns from Karachi University’s Centre for Excellence in Marine Biology or the National Institute of Oceanography can help save the turtles and provide firsthand experience to students. An unconventional solution coupled with sincere efforts is all that is required to reverse the pitiful plight of these marine turtles. The short term goal, however, remains the construction of the fence around the hatcheries before the end of the peak nesting season.
As for my two-and-a-half-year-old, the wait to witness the release of hatchlings on Karachi shores continues.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 30th, 2011.