There is hope that technology may help the Olive Ridley turtles and their human protectors.
Special Mention, Nature India Essay Contest 2020
There was fear in Suhas’s eyes as we dug up the Olive Ridley hatchery. He had expected the hatchlings to burrow out four days before. But there was no sign of them yet, so we decided to check if all was okay. As his hands moved the sand, frantic but delicate, he uncovered an alarming sight. Thousands of eye-less, red-coloured fire ants swarming over the helpless, newly hatched Olive Ridleys.
The scene was gut-wrenching. Suhas had been brought up on this beach in the idyllic little village of Wayangani, off the Konkan coast. Wayagani is populated mainly by fisherfolk, the closest grocery store is 6 km away, there is no tap water and electrical supply is unreliable. My grandfather had moved out of this very village to pursue a better life; as a consequence, I have been raised in Mumbai. But that day as Suhas and I were looking down at the carnage together, neither his experience as a village fisherman, nor my education as a cancer biologist could help hold back our tears.
Over the past 15-20 years, a group of volunteers led by Suhas have made a spirited conservation effort to save the vanishing Olive Ridley turtle. UNDP has recognised this by calling him a biodiversity champion. Though the turtles chose the remote beach to nest, the eggs were routinely lost to predation and poaching. The villagers had formed teams that scoured the roughly 1.5 km beach through the night, searching for female turtles that had come to nest.
Once the female was spotted, the team would wait till she finished laying her eggs. As she waddled her way back to the Arabian sea, the team quickly dug up the eggs and moved them to a secure location. They also cleared up the turtle’s tracks, so that her visit to the beach remained unknown. Roughly three months later, the team would celebrate the birth of baby turtles and watched over them as they explored their way to the sea. Over a decade of sustained efforts, the villagers had been rewarded by an ever-increasing number of turtles choosing their beach to nest.
But then, from 2016, more incidents of fire ant predation started occurring. In the 2018-2019 season, about 60% of hatcheries had been lost. Promptly the villagers had tried traditional ways to block the ants. Relocation of eggs away from human settlements, applying turmeric around the eggs, placing fresh neem leaves around the nest; but nothing protected the hatchlings. As nest after nest was lost, the villagers were fatigued and despondent. After guarding the eggs for three months, to lose them in this manner is brutal.
Suhas observed that the fire ant predation had accompanied a change in the egg-laying season for turtles. The turtles would usually nest from October-December, but were now laying eggs until January-February. Consequently, eggs which used to hatch in January-February now hatch in March-April. The warmer sand temperatures in March-April are conducive to the fire ants and could be a reason for the increased attacks on the turtles.
In a fight of man versus man, the villagers had won against the poachers. They had stayed up all-night, meticulously watched over the hatcheries throughout the season, fought off poachers and predators; but they had won. But this is a fight of man-vs-man-made climate change and one that the unassisted two hands of a rural volunteer cannot win.
This was when Suhas had reached out to me for help, thinking that a scientist might offer some solution. Unfortunately, I had studied nothing of ant predation in my years of studying breast cancer. But since then I have been on the lookout for solutions that could help the villagers and the turtles. Olive Ridleys are classified as a vulnerable species worldwide and India is one of the hotspots for their nesting. A solution to my village’s problem could help save thousands of turtles across the country. The survival odds for an Olive Ridley turtle is as low as 2 in 1000, and they need any help they can get to able to thrive.
But there is hope that technology may help the turtles and their human protectors. Conservation biologist Helen Pheasey has used 3D printing to create fake eggs equipped with GPS technology. When placed in a nest with real eggs, these eggas can be used as tracker for any movement in the nest. This technology is great to identify if the eggs have been removed from the nest by a poacher and trace their movement. This may provide relief to the night shift volunteers who monitor the hatcheries, but will not protect against the fire ants.
An ecologically sustainable solution to the fire ants may come in the form of their natural enemies – a parasitic fungus, Kneallhazia solenopsae and a virus, Solenopsis invicta virus-3 (SINV-3). A combination of 3D printing and gene editing/synthetic biology could help engineer fake eggs coated with fungal spores or viral particles. These eggs when placed in the nest would not harm the turtles, but could keep the fire ants at bay. Alternatively, large scale systemic studies can enable us to identify molecular pathways that lead the fire ants to find and attack the eggs. The artificial eggs could be laced with appropriate synthetic smells that could mask these signals emanating from the real eggs.
Villages such as Wayangani intentionally stay away from using harmful pesticides that could interfere with ecological balance. This is true of many other villages and conservation groups across the country. Finding solutions depends on scientists working with the local people focused on conservation to protect these fledgling species. Technology & Science led sustainable conservation methods have the potential to re-energize India’s natural ecosystems with minimum interference.
Experts estimate that the rate at which we are currently losing species is 1000-10000 times higher than the background extinction rate. It may be too late to save some of these species, but for others new technologies could bring a ray of hope.
[Shambhavi Naik is a fellow at Bangalore based Takshashila Institution and Director of CloudKrate Solutions Pvt Ltd..]