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Mystery inside a hard shell

Conservationists posit that human activities are disrupting migratory patterns of endangered turtles

Mystery inside a hard shell

One can’t help but notice the black shadows, blurred details, and the lack of colour in the landscape as the high-riding half-moon spreads its silvery-white soft glow over the Sandspit beach. The palpitating pulse of the sea was peaceful, kindling its own symphony.

Standing at a distance, the watchful eyes of the trained turtle watchers scanned the horizon from the beach for any sign of the special “tourists” who land on the beach annually, but only under the garb of the night. Late into the night, the guests approached from the sea and started to lumber ashore, leaving deep trails in the sand as they crawled to the beach and moved onwards. Their short stay on the beach will leave something special behind. More than mere imprints on the sand, these guests will leave behind the next generation of sea turtles.

The entire 20-kilometre strip of beach along Karachi’s coastline, which is part of the Arabian Sea and largely the Indian Ocean, witnesses sporadic marine turtle nesting between the months of July and December. But, the seven kilometre stretch of sand from Hawksbay to Sandspit is considered one of the most important nesting sites of green turtles (Cheloniamydas) in the world, with an estimated 2,500 female turtles returning faithfully to the same beach each time they are ready to nest. Concrete evidence, though limited, suggests that turtle nesting westwards near Cape Monze, Sonmiani, Ormara, Astola Island, Daran and Jiwani indicate that the coastline of the country is a favourable spot for green turtles to nest.

In the past, many other turtle species frequented the beaches of Pakistan, especially the Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), but the frequent visitors of the past has not been reported to nest in the country’s coastline for the last 13 years. Even though, the offshore waters of Pakistan support a substantial number of Olive Ridley turtles, six times higher than that of Green turtles, but the reason of why they have stopped visiting the beaches is a riddle shrouded in mystery inside a hard shell.

Conservationists and scientists believe that climate change, coastal development resulting in loss of habitat, poaching and illegal trade, entanglement in fishing gear as bycatch, plastic and marine debris are among the multitude of threats that pose an imminent risk to the long-term survival of sea turtles around the world.

Worldwide, six out of the seven sea turtle species are either classified as threatened or endangered due to anthropogenic activities. Sea turtles, dubbed as the ambassadors of the oceans, have been swimming around the world oceans long before humans arrived and have survived seismic shifts, but are now fast disappearing from the face of the Earth, seemingly right from under our nose.

Conservationists and scientists believe that climate change, coastal development resulting in loss of habitat, poaching and illegal trade, entanglement in fishing gear as bycatch, plastic and marine debris are among the multitude of threats that pose an imminent risk to the long-term survival of sea turtles around the world.

Whereas, the human-propelled phenomenon of climate change has resulted in escalating hardships for the turtles in the open waters, the haphazard trends of coastal development in the name of promoting tourism serves as a severe blow to conservation efforts. The alteration of coastlines contributes to the loss of habitat for the sea turtles and forces nesting females to translocate to other beaches. Given the sea turtle’s usual precision of being faithful to their forebear’s shores, many conservationists posit that human activities are disrupting an age old knowledge hardwired into the species brain which is leading to disoriented migratory patterns of turtle species.

And when these adult turtles, after overcoming impenetrable barriers, do come to nest on their ancestral beaches, they are welcomed by bewildering lights resulting in failed nesting attempts. Coastal development also proves fatal for young hatchlings when they emerge from the nest. Sea turtle hatchlings have for centuries followed the thin seam where the canopy of the sky and the sea hem together into a line of silver, a geomagnetic map leading them to the vast ocean. Beachfront lighting disorients hatchlings towards the human population where they may die of exposure or fall victims to human development.

“We are here to guide them back into the water,” says a reassuring community guard Abdullah. Abdullah belongs to the Kakapir village, a community living in the floating mangroves of the back waters of the coastline. He is a relative of Abdul Ghani who was murdered by land mafia while he was protecting the mangrove forests against illegal encroachment. The community is one of the many communities residing on the coastline of the country who have been instilled with a new valour of conservation through World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan’s (WWF-Pakistan) marine conservation programmes.

The organisation believes that to stop degradation of the natural habitat of the marine turtles, local communities should be strengthened and their abilities and interests should be honed to conserve natural resources on which they so direly depend. Keeping in view the survival ratio of the hatchlings, i.e. one in every thousand hatchlings, the community’s network plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the nests, nesting females and hatchlings from the ever-present threats of poachers. Their involvement is of great significance and has made it possible to keep continuous records of nests. They are also involved in head start programmes, through which they collect hatchlings from the nests and put them in hatcheries where they are protected.

“We strongly believe in conservation, especially with endangered species like these sea turtles. Helping to save these species is important to nature,” Abdullah adds. In a similar project sponsored by WWF-Pakistan in Jiwani, Balochistan, more than 1,000 nests have been protected and about 25,000 hatchlings were released into the sea.

Marine life stranding are occasional events, but climbing pressures from human activities like fishing can potentially increase their frequency. Earlier this year, a WWF-Pakistan trained observer and fisherman, Amir Rahim, successfully released an entangled Olive Ridley turtle trapped in a polypropylene (PP) bag in the Arabian Sea. The video of the successful release garnered some thirteen million views worldwide and brought forth the country’s efforts in conservation into the limelight.

Through the efforts of WWF-Pakistan, a major fishermen training programme was initiated for the safe release of megafauna in 2013, which has so far proved very successful. Under this programme, around fifty fishermen have been trained to safely release sea turtles back into the sea, if observed to be entangled in gillnets. Due to these efforts, more than 30,000 marine turtles have been released so far.

On Sandspit, the two guests from the ocean gradually pack the sand down to disguise the nest. Using their dexterous flippers, they throw sand in all directions as if indicating to us humans that their work here is done, nature has taken its due course and that it is now up to us to care for the next generation. A female turtle crawls out into the harmonious ebbing tide, never to return to tend to her nest. But she leaves behind a beautiful gift of nature in the shape of offspring who might one day be guided by the ocean’s call to tread the mysterious paths of their ancestors.

Khan Shehram Eusufzye

Khan Shehram
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.

One comment

  • Hope the green turtles survive forever!

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