Shekar Dattatri was initially a volunteer at the Madras Snake Park in 1976 and soon after, started visiting Sri Lanka where his father was on a four-year assignment with the UN. While backpacking around the country, he became interested in sea turtles (four different species – olive ridley, hawksbill, leatherback and green, and occasionally loggerhead turtles) which visited the Kosgoda nesting beach. At that time, very little was known about the sea turtles of Sri Lanka, and Shekar sourced a small grant of USD 400 from the Sea Turtle Rescue Fund in 1982 to survey the country’s coasts. At Kandakuliya in northwestern Sri Lanka, he found the biggest graveyard of sea turtles he had ever seen, which included mostly ridleys, leading him to realise that a huge massacre was occurring at a certain time every year.
Shekar got his Zoology degree from Loyola College, Chennai in 1983, and got drawn into the world of filmmaking. Over the next couple of decades, he first worked with Romulus Whitaker and then with international television broadcasters and production houses to make films on snakes, rats, sea turtles and a variety of other wildlife subjects. From 2007 to 2010, he served as a Member of the National Board for Wildlife, a high-level advisory body of the Government of India.
KS: Shekar, how did you get involved with sea turtles?
SD: It’s a long story! When I was ten, I read a book by Gerald Durrell called ‘Rosy is my Relative’. It was a hilarious story about a man being bequeathed an elephant named Rosy by a dying uncle, and the ensuing adventures of a man and his pachyderm. I was captivated by the author’s writing style and sought out his other books, most of which were about his expeditions to various parts of the world as an animal collector for zoos. Durrell’s books about his childhood as a young naturalist on the island of Corfu were particularly inspiring and taught me the rudiments of observing nature. So, casting aside the slingshot that was my constant companion until then, I began observing nature in my neighbourhood.
Three years later, in 1976 when I was in the 8th Standard at school, I visited the famous Madras Snake Park and became fascinated by snakes. After frequent visits I joined up as a volunteer thanks to the encouragement of a college student, J. Vijaya (Viji), who had been volunteering there for a few months. From then on, for about a decade, the Snake Park became my second home.
In December that year, I heard about something called a ‘turtle walk’ that would start from Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar on a particular Friday evening. So at the appointed date, time, and place, Viji and I met up with a small group of people on the beach and started an eight kilometre walk in the dark towards Injambakkam in the south. The leader of our pack was a dashing, no-nonsense woman in her 20s called Anne Joseph.
KS: Preston Ahimaz’s wife?
SD: Yes. But this was many years before they were married. Anne had worked at the Snake Park in the past and, I guess, used to go on turtle walks with the Park’s Director, Romulus Whitaker and earlier volunteers such as Valliappan. When I met her she was working at the Officer’s Training Academy in Chennai and leading turtle walks on weekends.
KS: Was this a Snake Park initiative?
SD: No. By this time the turtle walks had nothing to do with the Snake Park. This was now an informal small group of about a dozen people or so meeting on the beach every weekend and going out to watch olive ridleys come ashore to lay eggs. Initially, we would erase the tracks leading up to and away from nests to thwart egg poachers. Then, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department set up a makeshift hatchery on the beach and we would hand over the eggs to them. I can’t remember most of the other people on these walks, as we used to meet in the dark, walk in the dark, and head back home on the first bus in the early hours of the morning, having slept fitfully for a few hours curled up in the sand.
Anne was the glue holding this group together and we were all in awe of her. She used to turn up at the rendezvous point on the beach straight from the office on Friday evenings in a sari, the picture of a perfectly attired and coiffed Secretary to a Brigadier. She’d then vanish behind one of the fishing boats beached on the shore – like Clark Kent going into a phone booth – and emerge transformed, in jeans and a t-shirt, as our fearless leader.
After the first season of turtle walks with Anne, Viji and I, accompanied by a young Irula named Mari, began to go on our own turtle walks whenever we felt like it during the nesting season. But instead of collecting the eggs and lugging them all the way to the hatchery, we would just erase the tracks and completely camouflage the nests to throw off egg poachers and predators (mostly dogs and jackals).
KS: So, from working at the Snake Park to going on turtle walks, was there something particular about the turtles that attracted you?
SD: Not really. The thing is I was like a mongoose, always curious and looking for something exciting to do outdoors with nature. It didn’t matter whether it was turtles, snakes, or birding, as long as it was a nature adventure. I had cannily enrolled myself in a school that had 75 kids to a classroom and it was easy to skip classes without the teachers being any the wiser. When I wasn’t doing something at the Snake Park, I used to enjoy snake hunting trips with a veteran Irula man called Chockalingam.
Chocki’s tiny hut was behind the IIT campus and I’d bunk school and meet him there for exciting day trips. At the time, the area south of the IIT campus was all open land and degraded scrub and you could find all sorts of interesting creatures there; cobras, kraits, massive bullfrogs, big, black scorpions…
KS: So when did Vijaya come to Madras?
SD: Viji and her family were living in Chennai when we met. I think she was in the first year of her Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology (at Ethiraj College). She had joined the Snake Park as a volunteer a few months before I turned up. After observing me over several visits she suggested that I could become a volunteer too, if the Director would allow it. So I waylaid Rom Whitaker one day as he was getting into his Nissan Patrol Jonga to go home and said, “Hi Mr Whitaker, I know how to handle snakes and I want to be a volunteer.” He looked at me for a moment and said, “Fine. Just stay away from the dangerous snakes,” and that was that!
KS: And at some point you did a trip to Sri Lanka, right?
SD: I actually made several trips to Sri Lanka between 1979 and 1983, when my father was working in Colombo for the UNDP. In 1980, I joined Loyola College to do my Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology. The college operated under the semester system, so every six months we had a month long semester holiday and I would take off for Sri Lanka. Once there, I would pack a few clothes and a map into a small backpack and take local buses to wherever I fancied. One of my first trips was to a small coastal village called Kosgoda, about 110 km south of Colombo. A friendly fisherman called Similiyas Abrew, a grand old patriarch complete with a white walrus moustache, took care of a small turtle hatchery. I can’t remember for sure, but I think it might have been started by the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS).
While Similiyas lived in the village with his family, there was a tiny shack on the beach for the occasional visitor who would turn up. My Sinhala was limited to saying ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, and his English was pretty rudimentary but he showed me the shack and managed to convey that I could stay there. So I used to dump my backpack in the shack and walk up and down the beach all night. I was never disappointed, as so many turtles nested on this stretch, in particular green turtles, which I had never seen before. I was impressed by how much larger they were than the olive ridleys that I was used to seeing in Chennai. Although I was desperate to see a leatherback, I wasn’t lucky enough. Astonishingly, 5 species were known to use this stretch of beach for nesting: leatherback, hawksbill, green turtle, loggerhead, and olive ridley. In fact, I’d heard that 4 species had been photographed on a single night!
KS: That’s really amazing.
SD: It was during these trips to Kosgoda that I got hooked on sea turtles and wanted to find out more about their status and distribution in Sri Lanka. Wanting to do a survey, I wrote to the Sea Turtle Rescue Fund and asked them for a $400 grant for expenses which they sanctioned immediately. I persuaded my friend Dharmin Samarajeewa, who had a motorbike and a nascent interest in wildlife, to collaborate. So we rode right around the coast of Sri Lanka, stopping at nesting beaches along the way. During the day we would speak to local fisherfolk and conduct questionnaire surveys. And wherever we stopped for the night, we would walk on the beach and look for turtles or tracks.
At a remote village called Kandakuliya in the northwest we found a vast turtle graveyard. Not fresh carcasses, because it wasn’t the season. But you just had to scuff your foot in the sand and you came up with a piece of a plastron or a shell or a skull. Apparently sea turtles were hunted and butchered here in large numbers during a certain season. It appeared to be predominantly olive ridleys, but there were other species represented as well like greens, and even a loggerhead – carapaces, plastrons, just pieces of turtle remains everywhere.
KS: Did you do the east coast as well?
SD: Yeah, we went everywhere; Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Arugam Bay…
On another trip, when Viji accompanied me, we went to Yala National Park with the then Deputy Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. I remember standing at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea and watching green turtles coming up to breathe in the clear waters of the lagoon below. It was stunning, absolutely stunning. We walked on the pristine Yala beach and saw lots of leatherback tracks. And a bull elephant among the Spinifex. It’s the only time I’ve seen a wild elephant by the sea!
KS: So when did you get into wildlife filmmaking?
SD: In 1983, after I had finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology from Loyola College, I met an American couple, Louise and John Riber, who were Rom’s friends and had come to India to make a documentary film on snakebite. Rom was busy with lots of different things so he asked me if I would help the Ribers. I became their shadow for about a year and a half and stuck with them through the entire process of making the film. In this process I picked up the basics of filmmaking by watching them work.
After completing ‘Snakebite’, a 25-minute docu-drama, they left for Zimbabwe to make films on social issues such as teenage pregnancy and AIDS. Thanks to our new-found interest in filmmaking, Rom, his then wife, Zai, a friend named Revati Mukerjee, and I started a company called Eco Media and began making small documentaries. This culminated a few years later in a documentary called ‘Silent Valley – An Indian Rainforest’, which was the first film on the wet evergreen forests of the southern Western Ghats.
KS: What year was that?
SD: We got funding for the project in 1988 and we completed the film in 1990. It won a couple of national awards, for Best film on Ecology and Environment and Best Cinematography for my camerawork. In 1991, I went to work with Oxford Scientific Films in the UK on an Inlaks Scholarship. During that year the Silent Valley film won awards at international film festivals in Japan, Italy and the U.S. That was my stepping-stone to Discovery, National Geographic, and a career as a cameraman and producer of films for international TV channels.
KS: Can you tell me about your trips to Gahirmatha and other mass-nesting beaches in Orissa, as well as your filmmaking there?
SD: Sometime in the mid-1980s I suggested a stills photo shoot on the arribada in Gahirmatha to Bittu Sahgal, the Editor of Sanctuary Magazine. Since no one had really covered this before, he readily agreed and commissioned me to take the photographs, and Rom Whitaker and Chandrasekhar Kar to write an article. So I went to Gahirmatha, which was a very remote area back then, and took a lot of pictures of my first arribada. Rom and Chandrasekhar wrote the article. Dr. Jack Frazier was also present during this trip.
KS: Was Belinda (Wright) there as well on that trip?
SD: No, not on this trip. I went back to Gahirmatha in 1992 to film the arribada for a Channel 4 (UK) Television Series called ‘Wild India’. I invited Belinda along for that trip and she got some great pictures, including one with an adult female olive ridley that had come ashore to nest surrounded by a large number of hatchlings from an earlier arribada 50-60 days earlier! Those were the days when there were two arribadas.
KS: It was an arribada?
SD: Well, it was a mini arribada. The second wave was not as huge as the first one but there were still a lot of turtles – thousands nesting in a night. But this time there was something incredible happening. On one hand, you had these 50 kilo pregnant female olive ridleys ponderously coming ashore to nest for the second mass nesting while millions of hatchlings from the eggs laid during first arribada were making their way in the opposite direction, to the sea. It was quite a sight!
KS: Yeah. The hatching, especially in Gahirmatha, is spectacular, because it occurs over such a small area. So everywhere you put your foot, there’s a nest. But in 1992, when you guys went back to do the filming, at that time was there all this concern about turtle mortality already?
SD: Not at all. Actually, we saw very few dead turtles on Gahirmatha beach. But all that was to change.
I went back to Orissa in 2002 because I’d been reading all these reports about mass turtle mortalities. There was an India Today piece that mentioned Biswajit [Mohanty]. So I decided to meet him and investigate what was happening, and make a self-funded documentary film about the turtle situation in Orissa.
KS: That was the year we did the satellite telemetry and you did the little short film for the UNDP Project on that, right? And we were all at Devi River mouth together.
SD: Yes. I actually made several trips to Orissa in 2002 and 2003 and stayed there for long periods to make a film called ‘The Ridley’s Last Stand’. During these trips I saw thousands of dead turtles on Orissa’s beaches; all washed ashore after drowning as incidental bycatch in trawl and mechanized gill nets. I also spent a lot of time with Bivash Pandav, who was doing TED trials for the Wildlife Institute of India. He had hired a fishing trawler for the project so we went to sea often and camped on remote beaches.
KS: Right. So, your involvement in wildlife spans about four decades or so. Was there a buzz about conservation at the beginning?
SD: Project Tiger had begun in 1973 and that gave a sense of hope. In the late 1970s there was a big campaign against the proposed Silent Valley dam and hydroelectric project, which snowballed into a peoples’ movement. Then there was the UNDP-FAO crocodile conservation project in north and eastern India, as well as the efforts that Rom was making in the south through the Crocodile Bank. Conservation was quite nascent back then, and wildlife biology as a discipline hadn’t yet really taken off. There were just a few names that were prominent – Salim Ali, Rom Whitaker, Bob Bustard (who was in charge of the UNDP-FAO croc project). Then gradually, a small crop of young biologists started becoming known – B.C. Choudhury, Sudhakar Kar, Chandrasekhar Kar, Lala A.K. Singh, A.J.T. Johnsingh, Raman Sukumar, and Ullas Karanth.
KS: Anything else that’s memorable?
SD: Well, coming back to sea turtles, back in my days at the Snake Park in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was also fortunate to rub shoulders with the legendary Satish Bhaskar. After months out in the field, mostly in the Andamans and Nicobars on sea turtle surveys, he would come back to the Snake Park for short stints to write up his reports. He wasn’t a very chatty person but wrote superb reports. Viji and I eagerly lapped up his writings and learnt much from the occasional times he felt like opening up about his adventures.
Art Work: Maanvi Kapur