The 'turtle lady of Karachi'

Posted: 1 November 2004

Author: Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Turtles have existed since the days of the dinasaurs, or some 100 million years. Now this endangered species is under threat from pollution, trawler nets and beach development. Here, Zofeen T Ebrahim tells the remarkable story of one woman's effort in Karachi, Pakistan, to protect this age-old creature.

Farida Asrar Ghauri, 51, a Project Officer with the Marine Turtle Project is known to patrol the Karachi beaches at night, looking for green turtles. "I know I'm mad, staying awake half the night, walking on the beach. Who, in their right mind would do it, day after day, year after year..." says Ghauri, better known in Pakistan as the 'Turtle Lady of Karachi'.

Farida Asrar Ghauri measuring a green turtle during a night patrol at a Karachi beach. Photo: WFS
Farida Asrar Ghauri measuring a green turtle during a night patrol at a Karachi beach. Photo: WFS
Farida Asrar Ghauri measuring a green turtle during a night patrol at a Karachi beach© WFS
Ghauri has been extremely busy since September - the start of the green turtle nesting season. "I hardly get any sleep. I'm at the beach almost every night and in the day I'm at work filing the data, or giving lectures and making presentations in schools before we take the students to watch the egg-laying for the evening."

She continues, "to save them from predators, usually stray dogs, we take the eggs out soon after they've been laid and transplant them in holes in our specially built enclosures. When they hatch after 40-60 days we guide the young ones to the waters so that they don't get waylaid or killed."

Ghauri also spots turtles that are injured and need rehabilitation. "I am really short of staff, so my husband also pitches in," she says.

Endangered specie

This unassuming scientist can go on for hours explaining why this endangered yet resilient, 100 million-year-old species, which shared the earth with dinosaurs, needs to be protected. The green turtle is the second-largest species of the marine turtle family after the Leatherback turtle.

The turtles lay eggs every five years, and three times within the laying year. "Five hundred of our tagged turtles have come again to nest, which is a good sign; for, if the beaches were not favourable they would never come ashore. This year, three turtles tagged by us went to Africa, India and Iran."

"Things are a little better this year. We now have a lab, so we can work more effectively to understand the behaviour of turtles during captive breeding, study their migration patterns and document nesting frequency." Prior to the lab's formation, Ghauri's team dissected and treated the animals on the rocks, recording data sitting on the beach. "Believe me it was no picnic!" she exclaims.

The low priority given to the project is evident by the fact that Ghauri does not have an internet connection for her work; the data she collects is recorded in registers! "If I need to get in touch with international conservators and scientists, I go to a corner shop that has an e-mail service - not the most effective way, but I get by. Sometimes we don't have enough money for fuel so I use a rickshaw or hitch a ride on a motorbike. The work has to go on. The situation is grim, though, and half my time is wasted trying to make ends meet."

Protecting eggs The Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD) set up the Marine Turtle Project back in 1979. "The SWD did a survey to investigate the population of the green turtles and found that of the 11 beaches of the world where the turtles are known to nest, two - Hawkesbay and Sandspit - were found along Sindh's coastline. However, just a few hundred turtles came to lay eggs during the season. With the initial money from the World Wildlife Fund, three enclosures to protect the eggs and the hatchlings were built."

Green turtles have been granted a protected status under the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1972. Under Pakistan's Fish Inspection and Quality Act 1997, these creatures cannot be exported and their domestic consumption is banned. Furthermore, Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and acknowledges the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species, which has green turtles on its list.

According to Ghauri, there are eight endangered species of marine turtles, not seven as is commonly believed, of which the Olive Ridley is the most threatened. Only one or two Olive Ridleys can be spotted on the Karachi beaches during the nesting season.

Deadly nets

In 1980, armed with an MSc in Zoology and another in Marine Biology and oodles of energy, Ghauri landed up at the SWD "by sheer luck". "I had no idea then that turtles would be in my scheme of things," she says simply, adding, "they've taught me a way of life - discipline, patience and punctuality. They've motivated me to work hard." In 2003, she was awarded a PhD for her thesis on 'Bio-ecological studies of Green and Olive Ridley Turtles along Karachi's Beaches', making her the first Pakistani to have researched the subject.

While there is growing awareness about this harmless sea creature and a growing number of turtles are coming to the beach during the nesting period - from a few hundred in 1979 to over a thousand in 2004, Ghauri feels her work is not over yet. "If the trawlers would use the Turtle Extruder Device in their nest, it would enable them to catch more fish, and the turtles caught would not get wounded or handicapped for life. I've made surprise checks and, contrary to their claim, found the nets without the device, despite the mounting international pressure on our government for their mandatory use."

Ghauri acknowledges that in her almost 20-year-old fight, she has won some battles and lost a few. But the hurdles have not dampened her spirit. For, she says, "The turtles are the children I never had."

Source: Women's Feature Service, Delhi.