Sea Turtles: from Fishe to Flagship – ‘Kachua kababs’

Copyright: Excerpted from ‘From soup to superstar: The story of sea turtle conservation along the Indian coast’ with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

Member of a Nicobari tribe preparing a turtle for consumption. Image: Kartik Shanker

Kachua kababs

A group of us visited Indira Point on Great Nicobar Island in early 2002, three years before the tsunami. Meera Anna Oommen and I were based at the camp at Galathea, about 10 km away, studying treeshrews and leatherback turtles respectively. Suvir and Sudhir were visitors from Pune, filming and exploring the islands. On our way, we had passed the Nicobari village of Chinghen (Chingam). Across the Galathea river, we first came across a cluster of huts in a clump of trees. We passed some olive ridley carapaces lying in the grass. A Nicobari woman squatted, removing the meat from a ridley turtle which had just been killed. She had already removed the ovaries and oviducts, from which both shelled and unshelled eggs lay neatly piled in another carapace. Further on, we came to the village itself, another cluster of typical Nicobari huts by the sea. As advised, we had presented the village head, Captain Sitaram, with a bottle of whisky and had spoken to him of common friends such as Ravi Sankaran, Manish Chandi and Rauf Ali. Another ridley – this one alive – was tied to a coconut tree. The Nicobaris have been eating turtles for as long as they can remember. They catch them when they come ashore to nest. We are told that they like green turtle meat so much that they cannot wait for it to be cooked, and often eat it raw while they are chopping up the turtle. Unfortunately, regular take at the nearby beach has led to the decline of green turtles and they get few nowadays. But olive ridleys will do.

Hawksbill turtle at Indira Point in February 2002. Image: Kartik Shanker

We went onwards, past where the road ended, and onto the lighthouse at Indira Point. The road is now gone, and the lighthouse partly submerged. En route, we looked for the coconut crab, a magnificent animal that shreds coconuts open with its enormous mandibles. But the last one on that stretch of beach seemed to have been eaten. Or so we assumed; it is unlikely it would have died of old age in that part of the world.

Indira Point has great political and geographical significance. Fifty kilometres from Campbell Bay along the North–South Road, it is the southernmost tip of India. No land lies directly south all the way to Antartica. Sumatra lies only 140 km away to the south-east, but there is just a vast expanse of ocean to the south and west. I had read Satish’s account (‘A Hawksbill nested on 4-5 April 79 at Pygmalion Point’) and was on the beach trying to get a sense of the place as he must have seen it more than twenty years earlier. And as if time had stood still, I saw a hawksbill turtle nesting under a scaveola bush. I considered that a special connection to Satish’s time there.

On the return journey, the olive ridley at the end of the rope was missing. Instead, there were succulent pieces of meat being roasted slowly over a wood fire. A group of Nicobari youngsters sat around the fire waiting for the meat to be cooked. Subsistence take of turtles for meat occurs across the world. Many communities will talk about the taste of turtle meat, and the special place that a turtle hunt or turtle feast has in their culture. However, in the conservation community, a belief has come about that the consumption of turtles is inherently egregious, or that it is inevitably harmful to populations. Even in India, a dramatic transition occurred from viewing sea turtles as a fishery to according it a special place as a charismatic mega vertebrate, almost, if not actually, on par with tigers and elephants. Not all the consequences of this change were good. How did this change come about and what did that mean for sea turtle conservation in India?