They eat turtles, don't they?

© Greenpeace India This story is true. That does not make it much better. Good luck.

It all came to a head one night when I found myself crying in the sand outside a tent on an abandoned fishing wharf, with a very small mouse sitting be­side me, looking at me very sympathetically.
I was twenty one, doing a job that was way out of my league: researcher with one of the world’s biggest environmental organisations, and dreading the day when they would find out they had hired a child, and send me away with a pat on the head. To make matter much, much worse, my first assignment was in Orissa, India, a corner of the earth that god forgot, and the devil couldn’t be bothered with. I was six hours from the nearest town, ten hours from the nearest internet connection, and sixteen hours away from the nearest hot shower. And I was supposed to be saving a species from extinction.

Over the next two weeks, I came closer to insanity, and redemption, than I ever have in my life since. All four years of it.

The Olive Ridley turtle is an endangered species of sea turtle that, every year, nests on the beaches of south India for a few days. Theoretically, these small creatures are fascinating. For millions of years, every single year, they have found their way to the exact same stretch of beach in their thousands. Year after year for millions of years, they swim thousands of miles to return to the same spot their mothers, grandmothers and ­whole lines of ancestors came to, laying their eggs in the same damp, moon-cooled sand. Very little is known about where they go when they leave ­these beaches, what they do, or why they do it. What we do know is that something in their DNA, hard-wired by evolution, tells them, every year, where to go. A tiny map, burned over aeons into their brains, the light of the stars and the moon guiding their silent way across uncharted oceans to these beaches.
Until, some few hundred years ago, one turtle saw something on the horizon that she had never seen before. A fine mesh of cloth, made up of threads locking and interlocking, floating eerily in the dark water ahead of her. Intent on making her way to land, the way everything in her was telling her to do, she probably did not think of danger when she saw the fishing net. Perhaps she was curious, perhaps it was beautiful, the way it hung suspended in the black water, its loose ends drifting aimlessly in the water. Perhaps she avoided it. Perhaps she did not.

Over the years, though, the number of fishing nets off the coast of India multiplied. From languorous beautiful shapes suspended from solitary boats, they have grown to be monstrous things hanging from trawlers, catching thousands, hundreds of thousands of fish in their gaping maws, drawing them, gasping for breath, to the surface.
And increasingly, turtles became part of the catch. Larger numbers of turtles become trapped in the fishing nets every year as they make their way to Orissa’s beaches. Their tiny babies, once they hatch on land, are trapped in the nets as they make their blind way to the welcoming arms of the sea. And this was the animal I, and the small team I was with, were here to save. Theoretically.
© Greenpeace IndiaDid I say theoretically? Allow me to elaborate. What this lofty mission translated to was living in tents on an abandoned fishing wharf at the mouth of the ocean, in searing forty-degree summer heat, on a diet of fish and day-old vegetables, bathing in sea water and peeing in little plastic cubicles built around holes in the ground. Inside the tents were pouches made of mosquito nets, into which one crawled to sleep.
“Why the pouches?” I asked the disturbingly attractive, disturbingly motivated team leader, as I unpacked my suitcase full of linen shirts and jeans.
“For the snakes”, he said. What he really meant was, oh Jesus, what am I going to do with this city dwelling idiot. I hope the snakes carry her off.
“Oh.” I said. What I really meant was, oh Jesus, the snakes are going to carry me off.
The next week was spent in a blur of night watches, searing heat and lessons learnt the hard way. For instance, I learnt that when you carry a lantern into a plastic cubicle with transparent walls, you become the main player in a kind of magic lantern show, where your figure is brightly illuminated in outline as you try to negotiate with your digestive system over the endless diet of fish. I learnt that when you walk up a hill because that is the only place your phone will work, and you hear a swishing sound in the grass, you turn around and run, because otherwise the chances of your meeting avery surprised, and very venomous, snake going about its business increase exponentially. I learnt that Nike does not make hiking boots.

And through it all, we saw the results of the murderous nets. Every morning we would trek out on surveys. I exaggerate. The rest of the team would set out on surveys, while I dragged behind, sulking furiously, and slipping on the rocks every so often. And we would find only the carcasses of the turtles, mutilated by the nets, the ragged mesh marks around their flippers almost as heartbreaking as the slightly stupid, peaceful looks on their dead turtle faces. We found hundreds of dead turtles, some half-eaten by dogs after their encounter with the nets, some with their eggs fossilised within their exposed skeletons. Days passed and we still had not found a single live turtle anywhere.
In the end, though, it wasn’t a turtle or a snake that defeated me. It was a mouse. I crawled into my pouch one night, exhausted by all the dead turtles. “If they are going to die in such numbers, maybe they should go extinct after all, and then I can go home” may or may not have been my last unworthy statement. I zipped the pouch up, turned around, and came face to face with a very small, very surprised mouse.
© Greenpeace IndiaTo this day I do not know who screamed louder, me or the mouse. My co-workers, when they stopped laughing, could only say that the tent swayed wildly from side to side. Occasionally the shape of an arm would come out one side, while a tiny mouse shape was outlined on the other. Eventually I managed to tear my way out, and collapsed on the sand, weeping hysterically. The mouse regarded me in silent sympathy before wandering off to look at something.
“I’m going home”, I said. “And I will kill anyone who says anything to me about fishing nets, or turtles.”
“Sure”, said the team leader. “But we’ve just heard that there’s a nesting on a beach nearby.”
“Whatever”, I said. “I’m not going.”
Twenty minutes later, we were on another beach in the pitch dark.
“There’s nothing here”, I said. How inconsiderate were these stupid turtles, if they couldn’t even bother to show up.

We waited for hours. Nothing. It grew colder, and darker, and the light of the moon grew icy. And suddenly, through the night, came a soft swishing.
I had somehow expected that when we finally saw a live turtle, it would be accompanied by booming cinematic music. And lights. And possibly Morgan Freeman’s voice in a moving voiceover. Instead, there was only this swishing. And slowly, some misty shapes emerging from the sea. I watched as the number of the shapes grew and grew, and finally there were hundreds. The turtles made their slow, graceful way to the sand. All around me was nothing but these semicircles in the sand, moving with single-minded determination to the higher sand banks. These turtles looked nothing like the pitiful, dead things I had seen all week long. These were messengers from another time, from another age, before people, before fishing nets. They were ancient, timeless. One stopped near my foot, uncaring of my presence. She had been coming to this beach, to this spot, for decades, and before that, through the threads that connected her to the past, for millennia. I was a tiny blip, a meaningless little dot in the story of evolution, of the planet. I truly did not matter, to her, or to the planet, as it went about its work of existing. This story did not in­volve me, or the nets. We would be gone tomorrow, but tomorrow she would still be here.

I wish I could say something more than that this moment changed my life. Because that is not the point. My life is not the point. There is a point, but I do not know what it is. Or maybe there is no point after all, and that is the point. Maybe we are all threads in some giant moving growing net, all connected, all separate, all converging at the same point. Or maybe I was just a spoilt teenager seeing for the first time, first-hand, the meeting between life and death, between a turtle and a fishing net, and seeing for the first time which must win.
I don’t know. It was unreal. The mouse was real, though. Bastard.

Fotos: © Greenpeace India

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