The Hatchlings of Chennai

By: Dr S Srinivasan
Chennai has been a frequent haunt ever since Priya, our daughter, chose to study Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra. But we did not expect such surprises this time round.
Gender Justice

On the very night of our arrival a friend extended an invite to watch the hatching of Olive Ridleys at a beach close to the VGP Golden Resort on East Coast Road. We had heard of the Orissa coastline playing host to the breeding of these endangered turtles, but to watch the event in Chennai was a dream come true. By 7.30 in the evening we drove to the site with our naturalist friends, Monisha and Tara. We were joined by two more car loads of enthusiasts from Supraja’s house that doubles up as the office of Tree Foundation India, an NGO working for the last seven years to save the turtles. We were late for the introductory documentary which outlined the work and how five fisherfolk families from the coastal villages were motivated to set up hatcheries, carefully collect eggs and guard them from two and four legged predators, until the tiny hatchlings finally made it to the sea. It was by instinct, we were told, that the adult females return to the same beach, probably guided by celestial co-ordinates, to lay their eggs at the same spot, a little away from the water’s edge, covering them with layers of sand.

After manoeuvring the car through a maze of alleys when we parked by the side of the last building on the beach it was pitch dark. With stars and waves for company we slowly followed the two fishermen who were proudly managing the project and whose days of toil would bear fruit tonight. A ramshackle bamboo enclosure with a wide opening in the roof, so that the hatchlings can memorise the co-ordinates, was the safe haven for the eggs. The floor of the ‘home’ was partitioned into one meter by one meter squares, using coir ropes. Each alternate square contained a batch of precious eggs.

Few hatchlings were already breaking through the soft sand. We walked carefully without stepping on the squares that contained the eggs. Instinctively the little ones started moving towards the lantern that we were carrying. The hatchlings deeper down were being helped by the gentle fishermen and delivered to the surface. Soon after breaking free from the egg shell the hatchlings typically rest for a while before scurrying in the direction of water. About 80 hatchlings were collected in a wicker basket that was ceremoniously lifted and carried out into the open. About ten feet from the water’s edge we poignantly let the hatchlings free on the wet sand and watched in awe as they hurried to the sea in five or six quick steps, halted, looked up as though reconfirming bearings and then proceeded to be engulfed by the next incoming wave. Eventually all 80 were despatched to the sea, 40 long days after being laid by their mothers. As we bade an affectionate adieu to the little ones we wondered how many would survive the travails of life and return to lay eggs of their own.

Mary Ann, a young zoologist, part of the group that night, is working in the ‘AdyarPoonga’ project, thrilled us with the offer of a guided tour of Adyar Eco Park, also known as AdyarPoonga, two days later.  The Adyar Eco Park is being set up by the Tamil Nadu Road Development Corporation and the Government of Tamil Nadu in the Adyar estuary area of Chennai. According to the government, the project is expected to cost around 100 million rupees which will include the beautification of 1.45 km2 of land next to Ambedkar Memorial, off Greenways Road, Adyar, Chennai. The Park is to be a showcase of the ecosystem of the Coromandel Coast with fresh water ponds, brackish areas, mangroves, mud flats, dunes, and islands. An information centre would invoke a ‘watershed consciousness’, reminding people that we ‘live downstream’. It would be a focal point for information showing technologies that could be used to clean up Chennai’s waterways and encourage people to become involved.

Early Tuesday morning we assembled at the gap in the compound wall along Greenways Road that will serve as the main gate when the ‘Poonga’ opens to the public in late 2010. Mary Ann took us around the proposed reception area where an elaborate aquarium is being developed. Brilliantly painted rock edicts are on view, depicting a mushroom, anatomy of termite hill, etc., that have been created by tribal artists from Pitchandikulam. As we move on we see the nurseries where Coromandel Forest’s native vegetation is being nurtured for replanting in the ecopark at a future date. It is hoped that the current vegetation will be replaced by species native to the tropical dry evergreen forest including mangroves and medicinal plants like Rauwolfia. But what struck us as most singular were the already popular water channels. Grey heron, pond heron, cormorants, grebes, egrets, red wattled lapwings, yellow wagtails, prinias, crested pied cuckoos, kingfishers, female koel, shikra and spotted dove abounded before our startled eyes. Just to think we were in one of the busiest parts of the city.

End of the week we made our way back to Delhi with the expectation that our next time in Chennai would unfold even more surprises.

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