I first visited Daran Beach near Jiwani, one of the important marine turtle nesting sites on the coast of Pakistan, five years ago. On my second visit last week, I was happy to see that the beach is as pristine as ever and that the turtles are still coming and safely laying their eggs. Daran is a picturesque sandy beach on the Makran Coast near Iran, with towering cliffs, clear blue waters and not a plastic bag in sight!
This is a protected beach, where WWF-Pakistan has been working to conserve green turtles, an endangered species, for over 10 years now. They come in their hundreds during the hatching season (which starts in July), lumbering out of the water and onto the soft sand to lay their eggs, digging deep to protect their eggs. A mature turtle (they can live to be over a hundred years old!) can lay around 70-150 eggs in one season. After two months the hatchlings are born and they emerge from the sand pits and slowly make their way towards the open sea as if guided by some internal radar.
It is an amazing sight — a tiny baby turtle, freshly out of its eggshell, taking its first steps towards the vast blue waters just beyond, waving its flippers as a big wave catches it and sweeps it into the sea. I was shocked to learn that only one per cent of these baby turtles actually make it to adulthood! Around 10,000 are launched each year from this beach and only around a hundred actually live to mate themselves. There are jackals on the beach hunting for the baby turtles and then there are the sea gulls that are just waiting to swoop down and carry them off as they emerge from the sand. Then, even if they make it to the sea, they might be eaten by a big fish or caught in the large nets of the hundreds of trawlers that are illegally prowling Balochistan’s coastline.
The community living in a village near the turtle beach helps in the conservation efforts by assigning community guards to patrol the beach and chase away jackals at night. Most of the laying and hatching take place at night. The guards place wire mesh cages around the turtle eggs to ensure no predator comes near them and they also keep a close watch on any visitors to the beach who might disturb the nests.
The community has been awarded a “Living Planet Award” by WWF for all their hard work over the years. “There are now four beaches that we patrol here: Daran Tak, Shaheed Tak, Deedlo Tak and Picnic Point” says Abdul Rashid, who has been working as a guard for 12 years now. The beaches, which extend for around one and a half to two kilometres and are divided by steep cliffs, are actually located on community land. “Altogether there are six of us who are paid by the project to protect the turtles. During nesting season, even the children join in to help release the hatchlings safely. The children here are all trained now in protecting the turtles”.
The Pakistan Wetland Project, which is part of WWF-Pakistan, helped to upgrade the local primary school into a two-room structure with a veranda. Around 17 children from the community study there — the teacher is provided by the government. Right now, they are waiting for the new school master to take up his post. “Because it is such a remote place — Jiwani town is around 30 minutes away by road — the government teachers keep running away,” explained Abdul Rashid. The school children have been involved in beach cleaning activities and awareness-raising walks; and environment days are celebrated with the community.
The green turtles are always there for the children to learn from and Abdul Rashid says “they have now become a part of their family”. In 2008, the Pakistan Wetlands Project installed a hybrid wind turbine and solar panel system in their village to provide them with electricity. The system generates enough electricity to power light bulbs and wireless telephones. The villagers also own some agricultural land nearby where they grow cereals and water melons.
The Daran beach project has proven to be very successful but still little is known about these turtles, especially their migratory patterns. The Wetlands Project has now installed 13 satellite trackers onto the larger turtles to learn about their movements. The green turtle is the main species found nesting there; nests of Olive Ridleys are rarely observed. Dead Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles have been washed up by the waves, but there are no records of nesting.
Abdul Rashid showed me a book he was keeping. It contained seasonal records of nests and hatchlings. His 12-year-old son, Sameer, joined us and told me how he likes to spend whole nights helping the turtle hatchlings reach the sea. “I’ve been doing this since I was a toddler,” he smiles. It is this community-based watch and ward system that is protecting the nests and helping the turtles to survive against the odds.