Conservation news

From Soup to Superstar: the story of sea turtle conservation along the Indian coast – book review

  • Kartik Shanker is on the faculty of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India.
  • In his new book, From Soup to Superstar, Shanker lifts the veil of some of the mystery shrouding the lives of sea turtles, and the course of sea turtle conservation in India.
  • The chapters are deeply researched, reflecting Shanker’s decades-long experience working with sea turtles and sea turtle conservationists.

Sea turtles spend most of their lives at sea, below the waves and out of human sight.

Fortunately, in India, they nest in large numbers, giving biologists a chance to peek into their otherwise secretive lives. Kartik Shanker, a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India, is one such biologist. In his new book, From Soup to Superstar, Shanker lifts the veil of mystery shrouding the lives of sea turtles, and describes the course of sea turtle conservation along the Indian coast.

He begins by picking apart a turtle’s life, which, he notes, starts underneath the sand on a tropical beach. Upon hatching, tiny turtle babies crawl out of the eggs, scurrying along towards the sea. Their only guide, he writes, is the brighter horizon — “the reflection of the moon and stars on the sea, and the silhouette of trees and sand dunes in the background.” Once the hatchlings reach the sea, they spiritedly swim against the waves, orienting to the Earth’s magnetic field and then disappearing into the seemingly limitless ocean.

Young hawksbill sea turtle. Photo by B.navez, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

In addition to being a primer on sea turtle biology and ecology, the book offers a riveting — often personal — look into sea turtle conservation in India with every chapter. The chapters are deeply researched, reflecting Shanker’s decades-long experience working with sea turtles and sea turtle conservationists. Shanker explains, for example, how sea turtles went from being the choicest meat in some parts of India to flagship symbols of conservation, not far behind the tiger and elephant.

Shanker’s writing is lucid and compelling. But his book is not just about his personal journey. Instead, he introduces numerous quirky characters who have dedicated their lives to sea turtle conservation. Some of these men and women have now become “legends,” Shanker writes.

In his new book, From Soup to Superstar, Kartik Shanker lifts the veil on some of the mystery shrouding the lives of sea turtles, and the course of sea turtle conservation in India. Book cover courtesy of Harper Litmus.

One of these is Satish Bhaskar, who according to Shanker is an unsung hero of the marine conservation world. For much of his life, Bhaskar lived on remote, uninhabited islands — often lacking any human contact for several months at a time — monitoring sea turtles, tagging them and gathering information on their biology. His exploits, often outlandish, make for a captivating read.

Take, for example, this report from the biannual journal Hamadryad that Shanker includes in his book:

“Satish is spending 5 months on Suheli [remote islands in the Lakshadweep Archipelago off the southwestern coast of India] on his own and reached the island in early May. His wife has had one letter from him; found in bottle by a Sri Lanka fisherman who forwarded it to her. Tracing its course we find that the ‘bottle-letter’ dated 3rd July has travelled a distance of about 500 miles in an estimated interval of 24 days. The letter reached Sri Lanka around 27th July.”

Shanker takes his readers on a trip across India’s coasts — from Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharastra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, to the islands of Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar.

He sheds light on some of the age-old customs surrounding sea turtles in these parts of the country. He also looks at some of the threats that sea turtles face, such as from coastal development, entanglement in fishing nets, and poaching for their meat, eggs and shells, and explores the complexities of protecting the creatures in India.

Shanker digs into some of the problems that crop up doing conservation the traditional way, for example in creating national parks and protected areas. These parks, he writes, often victimize local fishing communities.

The book highlights efforts and campaigns by small, obscure sea turtle conservation groups, some successful, others not. It also criticizes big NGOs, such as Greenpeace, WWF, and the IUCN for often being funded or backed by governments, for being exclusionary, and for having a model of conservation that can result in social and environmental injustice. Big NGOs and large multinational corporations are “remarkably similar,” Shanker writes.

Shanker’s book nose-dives deep into the world of sea turtles and sea turtle conservationists, making it almost as exciting a read for the reader as the encounters were for him.

From Soup to Superstars: The story of sea turtle conservation along the Indian coast
Author: Kartik Shanker
Publisher: Harper Litmus
360 pages