GNF - Travelogue February 2011

About Fishermen, Mangroves and Sea Turtles

For many years, the Global Nature Fund has supported the restoration of mangrove forests in South India. A travel to the project area provided insight into the life of the rural population and the fishermen at Lake Pulicat.


By Udo Gattenlöhner (February 2011).


It is just after midnight, and at the Chennai airport there is still a frenzy of activity.  Contrary to Germany, where a ban on night-time take-offs is in force, many developing and emergent countries allow long haul night flights. Chennai has between five and eight million inhabitants, depending on the definition of the limits of the city. In 1996, the city of Madras, the capital of the Indian state Tamil Nadu in the Bay of Bengal, was renamed Chennai.


My colleague Nataraj Babu – he calls me Mr Udo and I simply call him Babu – is expecting me at the Airport exit. Babu is working for CReNIEO, a GNF partner organisation, and since 2009 in charge of our joint species protection project at Lake Pulicat. The project is supported by the Bundesamt für Naturschutz (Federal Conservation Agency). The project goal is to contribute to the preservation of biodiversity and to ensure fishing, the most important source of income of the population at Lake Pulicat.


The next day, Babu and his colleague Premanjali Rao and I visit the 60 km distant city of Pulicat, called Pazhaverkadu in Tamil language. Already in the early morning we are stuck in a traffic jam in Chennai. After two hours we arrive in the rural Pazhaverkadu at Lake Pulicat See. There are only a few other cars on the road. At 9:30 a.m. the temperature had reached nearly the 30 degree Celsius mark. Babu reported that in February the temperature seldom exceeds 35 degrees. At the end of April, when the monsoon season starts, the temperature reaches 45 degrees and the humidity goes up to 100 per cent, hard to bear for Europeans.


Traditional fishing techniques in danger


Pulicat is India’s second largest brackish water lagoon. It is connected to the sea and rich in fish and crustaceans. For generations, the local people have subsisted on fishing. There are about 30,000 professional fishermen at Lake Pulicat, which is smaller than Lake Constance. For centuries, traditional fishing has been regulated by the padu system, a community based fisheries management. Padu defines the fishing quota of the lake villages and thus protects the lake against overfishing. However, the number of people and fishermen living around the lagoon is steadily increasing resulting in overuse of the fishing grounds and increasing conflicts within the padu system.


Wading through the shallow waters, Babu explained me the dense mangrove root system, providing ideal living conditions for larvae and young animals of numerous fresh and salt water species. Mangroves also contribute to mitigate the devastating consequences of storms, tidal waves and tsunamis. During the past months, almost 20,000 trees were planted by Babu and his eight-headed team. The seedlings have been raised by themselves. As the period between the monsoon seasons can be very dry, the seedlings in the tree nursery must be watered daily with brackish water from the lagoon, a quite troublesome work.


The people around the lake are actively involved in the project. Local women help planting the mangrove seedlings and take care of the plants. Vital to the success of the project is to convince the people that intact mangrove forests ensure their livelihood in the long term. Therefore, Babu and his team organise regularly meetings with the fishermen and their families.


In the village of Kottai Kuppam I met Selvaraj Rajasekaran, the head of a fishermen cooperative, in Tamil language called „Panchayat. Babu explained me that the Panchayats are a kind of council of village elders. Mr Rajasekaran offered to accompany him on his fishing trip. In the warm light of sunset, we cruise along the lagoon. The 57 years old man explained me that seven fisher families build a group that share the hereditary right to fish.


Slowly two other fisher boats with colourful sails drive past our boat. This idyllic scenery cannot hide the fact that fishing is a hard job. The yields are barely sufficient to feed the families.


In Search of Turtles 


Babu informs us that between February and March the olive ridley sea turtle uses the coast south of Pulicat for egg deposition. The turtle owes its not very flattering name to the fact that it was considered as a crossbreed of loggerhead turtle and green sea turtle. At midnight, equipped with torches, we are walking for three hours along the lonely beach. We only found two dead turtles. Poachers still hunt sea turtles and take their eggs. Most of them, however, are victims of the industrial fishing. The severely threatened marine reptiles come to the surface regularly to breathe and then often get stuck in the fishing nets of large trawlers. On the beaches of South India, every year thousands of turtles are found dead.


On my flight back to Germany I am thinking on Anapan Lourdes, a fisherman from Lake Pulicat who told me that his two sons are studying in Chennai, but as he cannot afford to rent a room there, they go by bus to Chennai. The trip takes three hours one way!  Fortunately, the ticket is offered by the government. In light of these details, you truly realise what a privilege it is to have been born in Germany.


Udo Gattenlöhner is Executive Director of the Global Nature Fund.

 Lake Pulicat
 Mangrove plants in the project area
 Fishermen in the sunset
 Irrigation of the mangrove seedlings
 Babu with mangrove seedlings
 The project team in India