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This Nagapattinam fisherman is on mission to save Olive Ridley turtles

NAGAPATTINAM: It is still dark before daybreak when Natesan quietly saunters along the sandy shore of Kodiyakarai beach in Nagapattinam. With the crashing waves for company, he switches on his trusty hand torch to reveal train track-like trails leading to the sea. He’s on the lookout for sand mounds, recently dug up. It takes an expert like Natesan to know the unassuming mounds contained a nest of dozens of eggs that had been just laid by the endangered Olive Ridley turtles.

62-year-old M Natesan, a fisherman who now works as an Olive Ridley turtle egg collector, knows everything about the species he safeguards. “We need to keep the eggs safe from jackals and from people who may crush them while walking on the beach after sunrise,” he explains. With great care, Natesan digs all of the eggs out. He ferries them in a basket to the fenced hatchery located near the beach, careful not to break them. He digs a shallow pit and buries the eggs.

In 50 days, nature’s magic takes over and hatchlings surface out of the sand. Smaller than a palm, they will emerge, ash black with soft shells and leaf-like flippers. While some remain unhatched, the others are scooped in a basket.

This is not the first turtle nest that Natesan has worked with and it certainly will not be the last. But, he didn’t always work with turtles. “We used to find turtles loathsome as they are considered bad omens.” This changed when he picked up a turtle on his palm. “They exhibit a strong spirit of survival. They struggle in the basket and thump into each other. They start walking towards the sea once they sense it,” he adds.

Much like an Olive Ridley turtle, the conserver too, has struggled in life. Belonging to a Dalit community and having recently converted to Christianity, Natesan is no stranger to battles against oppression. Now having become a seasoned forest department worker, Natesan regularly watches the turtles on their first swim, a few hours after they hatch. The department releases them towards the sea in batches of hundreds. The hatchlings make movements for a short distance before getting swept by waves.

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