Preston Ahimaz started out as a volunteer in the Madras Snake Park, and was one of Romulus Whitaker’s recruits. Despite having a degree in commerce, he decided to pursue wildlife as a career and was the first coordinator of the WWF office in Chennai, starting with a tiny office and a table and a chair in 1982. He built their nature camp program, training many youngsters who went on to become wildlife biologists and conservationists. He continued the WWF turtle walks through the 1980s.
KS: What do you remember about how you got involved with turtles?
PA: I got involved even before I joined WWF, with my wife Ann. She was with the Snake Park before I came on the scene and she was working there full time. At that time, WWF had a little – what should I say – kiosk, at Snake Park. So, she was the volunteer for WWF, selling their products and all, along with the Snake Park. I’m talking about late 1970s. When I went to the Snake Park and met Rom – this was while I was in college doing my final year B.Com. –Rom said, “Come, you can volunteer around here.”
KS: Which college were you in?
PA: Loyola. So, when I got there, I was working with Rom, and then Rom introduced me to Ann as their volunteer. She had left Snake Park by then, but she was coming over because she was a volunteer for WWF. She had by then joined the Officer’s Training Academy at Saint Thomas Mount. So we met, and then I found out that she was interested in turtle walks. She was organising turtle walks through WWF and Snake Park in the late 1970s along the stretch that you guys worked later. I said, “Look, I’m also interested in this,” and so I started going out with them on turtle walks.
At that time it was pristine, compared to now, in the sense that there were no lights on the beach, there was no muck on the beach, there were no buildings out there. When you started the walk, after you left Thiruvamiyur, it was, sort of, dead. Nice and dark, and… perfect. So we’d walk up to Neelankarai, gathering eggs along the way, and bury them in Neelankarai. I think Grindlays Bank had given them [WWF] some money to build a hatchery in the Grindlays premises on the beach. It was just a pen, about twelve by twelve feet. One and a half feet high [with] a wooden frame and chicken wire mesh all over. So we’d open the lid on top, bury the eggs in them and shut the lid again.
KS: This was a Snake Park hatchery?
PA: I’m not sure if it was Snake Park. I think it was WWF. WWF had a nature shop there, where they were selling their products. Snake Park was the WWF unit in Chennai, before I started the office in August 1982. Before that, the WWF was functioning out of the Snake Park.
KS: So you’re one of the original turtle walk couples then?
PA: Yes, she was one of the original turtle walkers, she started it, with Rom’s help of course. I know Rom started it along the Croc Bank stretch.
KS: I’m curious about this hatchery, because the documented record shows Snake Park hatcheries with detailed records, till 1976. Then from 1982 onwards, the Forest Department records are there. In between, between 1976 and 1982 there are only records from CMFRI [Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute]. I have actually no documented records of this little pen…
PA: No, I think we have documentation. Shekar [Dattatri] was there. I have pictures of him sitting in the pen!
KS: Yeah. Shekar remembers going on the turtle walks with Ann and he has this very vivid memory of that period. But he couldn’t remember whose hatchery it was.
PA: Grindlays Bank funded it. We had this hatchery placed within the premises of, maybe the Grindlays. It was a resort kind of thing on the beach, one of the first houses on the beach. They had the hatchery within their premises for safe-keeping. We used to bury the eggs in the hatchery. And then we’d sleep the night and take the bus to come back the next morning.
In Croc Bank, I also remember on a couple of occasions, we saw reptiles go into a kind of mesmerised state while laying eggs: they became oblivious to disturbance. One example was crocodiles, at Croc Bank. You could sit on them when they were laying their eggs, it was amazing. But, the peak of it all was seeing an olive ridley turtle being eaten alive when she was laying her eggs. There was this dog, tearing chunks out of her front flipper and she just sat and continued to lay her eggs. Sitting on a crocodile is one thing but eating out of an animal while it is laying eggs is another thing. This one, she just sat there while the dog tore chunks from her, so we chased the dog away and after she finished laying, we picked her up and put her back into the sea. That really was something that I was totally amazed at… how can you just sit there and be eaten alive? Are you so engrossed, do you get so lost in laying eggs that you don’t know what’s happening to yourself? [laughs].
I know this happens to reptiles. When I told Rom this, he said, “yeah reptiles are like that, you can do that to crocs.” So then we finally did that to a croc called Nova. She was a big female at that time over there. We went into the pen, and we just pushed her tail out of the way and took photographs as the eggs dropped out. And this was amazing. Now and then I see garden lizards, but they’re not as zapped out, they’re pretty aware of what’s happening, even while they’re laying their eggs. But this turtle was the limit!
KS: I’ve seen turtles in Orissa being eaten by jackals while they’re laying eggs.
PA: Oh, so you’ve seen that then?
KS: Yes, it’s pretty bizarre.
PA: It’s amazing. There was a hole in her front flipper, a hole. And then once I think it was R. Kannan and Shekar who were walking alone on the beach and at that time. The fisherfolk were really hostile, you know, because the fisherfolk used to collect eggs for sale. He [Kannan] said, “two of us were there and we met these two – two fishermen. And they caught us and said, ‘Shall we chop them up and throw them into the sea?’” And he said, “Man, I got really scared! I decided not to go alone with anybody again…just go in small groups. And I always advise people not to go alone”.
KS: So who are the others that you remember from that time?
PA: Ann, Shekar, there was a guy called Sala – he was at that time working in the Snake Park Subsequently, he joined the forest department at the Vandalur Zoo, and thereafter he passed away – around four to five years ago. He was very well known to my wife because they worked together in Snake Park. So, the two of them used to conduct these walks. Initially it was with a very small group – Shekar, and a few other people who were keen. This thing that you were doing [referring to the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN)], which was getting the public and students involved, all came only later. At that time there weren’t these big groups. Like I said, they were small groups of five, six, eight people. And after Kannan had this nasty experience, we all chickened out and started going out in bigger groups. It was definitely through WWF because, I remember now, they got the funding through WWF from Grindlays Bank. Grindlays Bank gave them the premises and money to build the pen.
KS: So, the next phase is when the WWF starts its office here, right?
PA: I started the office in 1982, August. And I was there for 27 years thereafter. I was alone in the beginning. I had a hundred square feet of office space – ten by ten – a table, cupboard, chair and typewriter. That was WWF-Tamil Nadu. In the premises of Sundaram Clayton. Mr. Venu Srinivasan was our first chairman, the Managing Director of Sundaram Clayton. But then, after I joined WWF, I just carried on all that Ann was doing as a volunteer. I carried on with the camps, I carried on with the turtle walks, and boosted them – made them more intense, more common, more frequent.
KS: So, was WWF already doing those field camps like the ones that you used to do in Top Slip?
PA: It was already being done. I remember, the first camp that I went to, I paid and went. The first camp that we had was at Mudumalai, and I remember the fee was fifty rupees, for a seven-day camp in Mudumalai. [Laughs] Chandrakant Wakankar, do you know him? He was the Chief Education Officer at that time, and he was conducting all the WWF-I camps. Ann was a volunteer because she was from WWF-Chennai. So I paid my fifty rupees and went to the camp.
KS: He was west zone, right? Based out of…
PA: Bombay. At that time, the WWF head office was in Lalbagh in Godrej’s godown. So, yeah, camps were on even at that time. But that was not a camp organised by WWF-Tamil Nadu. My wife only went there to help. But the first camp that she organised was in Top Slip, I went for that too as a volunteer. And there was a bit of a mishap because somebody called and told the campers that the camp was cancelled, although fifteen to eighteen people had joined. So only five people turned up – five organisers, and nobody else and we were all wondering what happened. Then we called and they said that somebody had told them it was cancelled – so nobody came. Anyway, the five of us went ahead and had a ball at Top Slip! But, yeah, camps were being conducted even at that time. Turtle walks, definitely – they were the mainstay of WWF activities in in Chennai, and of course, product sales. That’s why they had that little counter there at Snake Park, they were selling posters. I remember one of the earliest posters was that of a leopard baby, it was a very popular poster and a tiger cub.
KS: The leopard baby poster I got in 1981 perhaps, when I was 10 or 11, and I owned till maybe a few years ago.
PA: I think my daughter still has one.
KS: I got the tiger cub a few years later. So, through my childhood, in my room, I’ve always had those two posters. Right through college and when I left home, my parents still had it on the wall.
PA: Yeah, the leopard cub poster was very popular, the very first one, they reprinted it several times. And another early product I remember was the painting sets. We used to have these calendars and every time the year passed, they’d cut those pictures and sell them as picture sets. One of the earlier ones was a set painted by Helmut Diller, he was a German artist…beautiful detailed paintings of all the endangered species. I still have one set with me. Those were the kinds of things they were selling at Snake Park in those days.
KS: And there were the turtle walks and the camps…
PA: It was turtle walks and camps from WWF’s side, yeah, with the help of Snake Park. Theodore Bhaskaran was the main person for the camps in Coimbatore. He was helping out there. He was Postmaster of Coimbatore Circle at the time. We stayed in his house and went to Top Slip from there.
KS: Yeah, the camps made a huge impact.
PA: Did you attend any?
KS: No, it’s strange… I never did. But almost everybody else I know who’s involved in wildlife, if you ask them, ‘How did you get involved?’ it’s either ‘I went on a turtle walk’, or ‘I went for a WWF camp’.
PA: Kartik, in those days, WWF was the only one organising camps in wildlife sanctuaries… the only one! The only single, solitary one. So, if you went to a camp in a wildlife sanctuary, it would have had to be a WWF camp. And that was done nationally, from Bombay. They used to send out invites and, wherever they would hold them, the office in that region would help with the camp. And so, when they held them in Top Slip and Mudumalai, we were involved.
KS: So, whenever I get a chance to talk to Sejal [Worah, Programme Director, WWF], I always tell her that whatever else you guys do, you shouldn’t stop doing the camps. Historically, it’s such a classic part of what you do.
PA: Unfortunately, it came at the end of my tenure with WWF, but for the last two years I did only camps. I’d left the Tamil Nadu office and I took over [as] director of the National Nature Camping Programme in Delhi – NNCP. That involved camps throughout the country, throughout the year. I was doing only that. And we calculated that we should have at least two camps per month, of maybe twenty people each, to make the programme sustainable.
It started off well. But then the depression set in. People stopped coming to camp, and then we were conducting just one camp in three months. I had told Ravi Singh [CEO, WWF] initially that this was feasible. But it became a liability, and an NGO can’t afford liability. So they made me a consultant for a while, but even that didn’t work. So, eventually I left. But now, I believe, they want to revive the camps. The Tamil Nadu office just called and asked me to help them with a camp at Top Slip, So, I think it’s important and, as you said, it’s one of the flagship activities of WWF. That’s really why WWF was so popular in those days.
KS: And I think the current management does believe in the notion of camps. There have been points at which the WWF management didn’t really think that this was the most important thing that WWF should be doing, but now I think they do.
PA: I knew Sejal when I first joined. We went to the Rann of Kutch for the General Body meeting…fabulous time! And of course, subsequently she left WWF-India and joined WWF-UK and now she’s back. But she is very strong on camps. Ravi Singh was the one who agreed to this idea of having a separate department doing only camps. He saw that it was important. Now, I know that they’re trying to start it up again.
KS: Anyway, coming back to turtles, the next phase, as I recognise it, was when you started the WWF office here and started bringing more focus to the turtle walks on. So, what was that period like? I’m assuming that you would take visitors on weekends, right?
PA: It was usually weekends, Saturday nights.
KS: So apart from the core group of turtle enthusiasts, who else would show up on these walks?
PA: We used to have the Nature Club movement at that time.
KS: Right, the schools.
PA: The schools. Vidya Mandir was one very strong school. And from Vidya Mandir, there was a kid called Abi Tamim, that guy was really keen. He was one of the bright sparks in the group there and he used to pester us with questions.
KS: [jokingly] Yes, endless questions. We used to give him a quota, that he’d use up within the first kilometer or so.
PA: But because of his pesky enthusiasm, he got others to join as well.
KS: We came and met you during the first season and you may have put us on to Vidya Mandir and mentioned Abi as well…That there was this kid who was extremely interested in wildlife. We went and met Asha, the biology teacher, who was really enthusiastic. Gautami, who went on to lead SSTCN for a while, was in Std. 11, and Abi was this little fellow who we started taking out on turtle walks.
But do go on, who else do you remember?
PA: I think Rom was also organising a lot of turtle walks along the stretch between Fisherman’s Cove and Croc Bank. And they were collecting eggs and using Croc Bank as a hatchery. But there was one occasion, I got the picture of this mid-sized turtle. I don’t know where they got it. you normally don’t see turtles that size, you either see hatchlings, or fully-grown ones. He had it in a big dish in the Croc Bank.
KS: Ridley, was it?
PA: Yeah, yeah, ridley. I’ve got a picture of it, with a tape on its back so you can see the size as well.
KS: That’s quite unusual.
PA: But it subsequently died. You can’t keep an ocean ranging creature in a three-foot enclosure. In those days, Croc Bank had only thatch structures. Nothing permanent. When I was in Croc Bank in 1980 or 1981, I took over as manager for three months, because Alan Vaughn, who was manager, had gone back to the Andamans. We were all living in little thatch huts, including Rom. His place was a big thatch hut near the beach. Hardly any trees, only Casuarina, and it used to be deadly hot to walk on the sand. Now they have a tropical forest over there! Harry’s really converted that place.
But it’s on now? They still do turtle walks?
KS: SSTCN? Very much so. They have a senior core now who oversee their work, but it’s still students and volunteers. And what I think started with the turtle walks that you guys did, not only did it expand within Chennai itself, it spread elsewhere too. A lot of the NGOs that are working around the country, many of them say that ‘we had heard about this turtle programme in Madras’ or ‘we had read about it in the newspaper’ and they started turtle conservation programmes as well.
So, was there anything else that you remember from that period, or afterwards?
PA: Well, I know that after a while the pen fell apart and the Grindlays link was broken. So we moved out of their premises and got a larger hatchery, a tall one, about 6 feet high that you could stand in. But again, completely covered with chicken mesh, at Neelankarai, on the beach. I think by this time it was a Forest Department hatchery with a guard. We continued doing the same thing, but we’d bury the eggs in this place instead of the Grindlays Bank premises. And that’s when the group started growing bigger. Now the adults also started joining us, the public. At that time, I was in WWF but located in CPR ( C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar) Foundation. So some people from the CPR Foundation also came with us. And I think the Forest Department operated it for five years. Then, in their wisdom they decided, “Okay, we’ve done it for five years, now the population has stabilised [laughs], so we’re closing down.” And that’s when you guys came in.
KS: In fact, I think there was a cause-effect relationship over there. Tito Chandy and others used to organize turtle walks in the late 1980s. They decided to set up a hatchery because the Forest Department apparently said: “The Bay of Bengal has reached its carrying capacity now for turtles, so we’re not going to release any more hatchlings”. So then a bunch of us got together and set up SSTCN.
PA: I remember, it was like this: It was Rom, then WWF, then Forest Department, then SSTCN. So it evolved.
KS: Yeah, quite a history there.
PA: When I look back at the very start of my career in wildlife, Rom was the reason I was able to pursue it. When I left college, the first thing I did was I went to him and said, “I’d like to work at Snake Park.” He said, ‘Okay, you can do this. Start now.’ Just like that, I had my first job. He was the one who also encouraged me to follow this as a profession.
KS: Well, it all ended well, didn’t it? Including for turtle conservation in Chennai. Thanks Preston, it’s been lovely talking to you.
Art Work: Maanvi Kapur